Tuesday, January 31, 2012

GM foods - why is the public suspicious?

The video link to Science Under Attack from SBS On Demand will only be available for 13 days from the date of posting in this blog - it will expire by the 12th Feb 2012. The documentary looks at the responsibility of scientists to present their findings in a way that is understandable by everyday people. Link here.

The programme is described as follows "Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse examines why science appears to be under attack, and why public trust in key scientific theories has been eroded - from the theory that man-made climate change is warming our planet, to the safety of GM food, or that HIV causes AIDS."

It's well worth viewing to get a feel for the complexity of the scientific process and the challenges scientists face. However there was one aspect that I felt could have been explored in much more depth and that is the suspicion surrounding GM foods. 

I've read that the advances in technology of genetically modified food and disease resistant strains are what will be vital for our very survival as our climate becomes more volatile. That I understand. 

The missing link in my mind was the discussion about how companies doing the research into GM foods take complete control over seed 'ownership' and via laws such as the NZ Food Bill, threaten the health, livelihood and resilience of communities the world over

Powerful companies could also manipulate data to hide adverse findings and gag or dismiss whistle blowers such as is reported to have happened with United States FDA scientists and doctors studying medical devices for patients including those with cancer.  Link here.  
The Food and Drug Administration secretly monitored the personal e-mail of a group of its own scientists and doctors after they warned Congress that the agency was approving medical devices that they believed posed unacceptable risks to patients, government documents show.
It would appear that business interests of the FDA took precedence over the safety concerns of its own reputable professionals. These professionals are reported to have since been dismissed. 
"Information garnered this way [accessing private emails] eventually contributed to the harassment or dismissal of all six of the FDA employees, the suit alleges. All had worked in an office responsible for reviewing devices for cancer screening and other purposes". 
There was apparently a claim that the whistle blowing  "improperly disclosed confidential business information about the devices" even though the the scientists and doctors working on the devices "believed [they] posed unacceptable risks to patients." 

I'll now move on to a bill (NZ Government Food Bill 160-2)  which apparently allows for a range of very restrictive controls about what citizens may or may not grow in the privacy of their back yard, and how they choose to sell or barter their produce, how often they can sell it, as well as how they gather and share seed.

New Zealanders are understandably outraged. They have a fantastic system of roadside stalls and vibrant local communities interested in becoming increasing self sufficient. 

They grow interesting varieties of fruit and vegetables for sale at roadside stalls, for trading at food co-ops, for bartering as well as for fun! 

The NZ Government Food Bill is reportedly backed by the very same FDA mentioned above. The same group who appear to have gagged and bullied their own employees, the employees who alerted the US Congress to concerns about unacceptable risks in some medical devices. If it is indeed the same FDA, no wonder New Zealanders are concerned. 

A comprehensive discussion is here with links to more in-depth commentary. Here is a short excerpt from the post:
I read that the bill is being brought in because of the WTO, which of course has the US FDA behind it, and of course that is influenced by big business (Monsanto and other players).  It looks like this NZ food bill will pave the way to reduce the plant diversity and small owner operations in New Zealand, for example by way of controlling the legality of seed saving and trading/barter/giving away; all will be potentially illegal.  The best website to read about the problems with the new bill is http://nzfoodsecurity.org 
By controlling seeds, the bill takes the power to grow food away from the public and puts it in the hands of seed companies.
Growing food for distribution must be authorised, even for “cottage industries”, and such authorisation can be denied.
Under the Food Bill, Police acting as Food Safety Officers can raid premises without a warrant, using all equipment they deem necessary – including guns.
Seed banks and seed sharing networks could be closed down in they don't get sufficient approval. 
More information here.

Globally we're facing increasingly severe and extreme climate events. We face immense challenges associated with rapidly depleting fossil fuel reserves. Resourceful communities do not need restrictive bills that could erode their vital formal and informal networks as they face these challenges with courage and hope. They need support, not demoralising restrictions.

Already communities around the world are working diligently to be more self reliant and self sufficient. This should be celebrated and supported by all levels of government  - not dangerously restricted. That these bills play into the hands of companies and organisations some of which have a track record of not having the best interests of the community at heart is disgusting. 

Too few people in too few companies have too much power.  They are showing obscene levels of greed and manipulation to ensure they rule absolutely. They are acting like bullies. Unfortunately many governments are bowing to the pressure. That's wrong. We all suffer. 

No wonder there is a climate of distrust surrounding GM foods and some of the companies promoting them. 

It's a shame this aspect wasn't covered in the programme as I suspect the problem lies not so much with the food produced but with the companies involved. 

A petition objecting to this bill is here.

And, just in: Monsanto voted worst company of 2011 by Natural Society -- for "threatening both human health and the environment." here

and Monsanto to face biopiracy charges in India here

What do you think?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Where are our wise leaders?

Even though this post isn't about our physical health, it's a good analogy for the scenarios unfolding with some restrictive laws worldwide. Bear with me for a few moments while I explain that there is a cost to us not taking an interest in and acting on information about censorship of the internet, and how it's a little like not having a health checkup and acting thoughtfully on any scary results.

As men and women we are advised to regularly have check ups and for a good reason, they can detect problems before they become serious so they can be treated appropriately.

The same as it's wise to understand your personal health issues, it's important for all of us to understand the current issue with censorship (as best we can with the information available). I urge you to be informed and make up our own minds independently of those who have vested interests in filtering information for their own ends. It's not fun, but it is sensible to know what is at stake for our collective and societal health.

Below is a video that gives easy to understand information about internet censorship as currently proposed and/or has been legislated on depending on your country. From what I can understand, those in positions of power appear to have been caught up in the fear mongering about issues like child porn, piracy and terrorism. They appear to have made hasty knee jerk decisions that result in the cure being worse than the disease - apparently most countries already have adequate laws and ACTA is an additional act.
  • Child porn? Yes it's an issue. It won't go away with passing this draconian law. People into child porn will find another way to get their fix. To pretend otherwise is wishful thinking.
  • Piracy? Is it really the issue the big media companies and their mega million dollar industries claim? Not according to specialists in the field. Sensible alternatives to the censorship bills have been suggested.
  • Terrorism? Bad stuff, but have you noticed that terrorists don't seem to worry about laws? They overlook them. Terrorism in one form or another has, unfortunately, been around for millennia. They'll find a way around these censorship laws as well.
The possibility of excessive legislation being used inappropriately and in the interests of big business to gag whistleblowers is huge, and could be a serious threat to our respective democracies.

We need whistle blowers in our society. These people show amazing courage in exploring and shedding light on corruption. We mightn't like what they tell us, but they expose injustice, corporate wrongdoing and coverups. Ultimately society is strengthened as a direct result of their actions. People, groups and communities who share information on social justice issues could be gagged by those with vested interests. That's wrong.  In addition, the bills appear to be unwieldily, cumbersome and staggeringly expensive to implement effectively, fairly and ethically.

These bills can apparently affect free access to all sorts of information from educational material, open political discussion, discussion about the how our food is manufactured and tainted (think of the melamine scandal in China) environment, health, and scientific matters is frightening.

Personally I'm glad there were courageous whistle blowers in China. Companies shouldn't have been lacing milk products with melamine - this is the kind of thing we need to know and be able to share without fear of retribution.

This video is quite long. However it's a very informative presentation of copyright (which sounds impossible, but it's true!) It's easy to listen to and clearly presented. I urge you to listen - the main speaker begins about 10 minutes in.

And if after listening, you decide to take action in the form of signing a petition you can do that here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The demise of democracy?

East Side Gallery. Berlin 2009.
I wonder how many citizens of the US are aware of the deep concern many of us in the rest of the world have about what is happening in your country right now.

The passing by President Obama of the NDAA bill on New Year's Eve is truly frightening.

Are you aware that US citizens are able to be detained indefinitely without trial in their own country?

We know this happens in China, North Korea and other countries around the world. We see the fear and anguish of family and friends not knowing what has happened to their loved ones. They're not allowed to visit, they lose their rights - and they have no ability to speak out, to complain, to prove their innocence.

We get all self righteous and complain, often loudly, when innocent people are detained indefinitely in "other countries", we march, we write letters, we stick our noses in and agitate for change - for them to be more like us.

Is this the 'us' we want them to be more like?

This video is a mere 6 minutes. It's worth watching.

What would you want your loved ones to do if you were detained indefinitely without trial? Who would you turn to?

Wouldn't you wish they'd at least tried to have the bill removed? Wouldn't you want them to say "I did my best, I agitated, I wrote letters to the papers, I marched, I spoke out."

Is it better to speak out and fail than not to speak out at all?

Monday, January 23, 2012

The power of words -

 and the effects can last a lifetime.

I would like to give full credit to the artist/author of this powerful, thought provoking shot. If anyone knows where it came from please let me know.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why vote?

"In the face of all the challenges we face today, is my optimism about the future of humanity idealistic? Perhaps it is. Is it unrealistic? Certainly not. To remain indifferent to the challenges we face is indefensible. If the goal is noble, whether or not it is realized within our lifetime is largely irrelevant. What we must do therefore is to strive and persevere and never give up." His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Some years ago I was flabbergasted when a friend I had previously respected said he had never voted. He insisted it wasn't because he was lazy or disinterested, but that it was his way of objecting to the whole political system and what he perceived as corruption and politicians being bought out by big business. At that stage my primary objection was that thousands of men and women had fought to preserve our democracies. They'd lost their limbs, minds and lives to ensure we wouldn't live under tyrants in various guises. The choice not to vote seemed a cop out to me.

I've thought about that conversation a lot since, and here's my current thinking about why I believe it's important for everyone to vote - particularly in countries where voting isn't compulsory.

I've counted electoral votes here in Australia, where voting is compulsory, and have seen first hand how important every vote is. Individually it doesn't seem to matter much, and it's easy to imagine your single vote is insignificant. But when your voice joins in with hundreds and thousands of others it has an effect. It can unsettle some candidates who thought they were sitting pretty and encourage others for next time.  (Interview with a new candidate here) It can make candidates think - they listen to the mass of voices.

Are you visible?
Some people, I know, are concerned that voting undermines your freedoms. A position I admit I have difficulty understanding. Consider the following: When you choose not to vote, you become invisible. Well orchestrated, powerful groups with vested interests and very deep pockets will mobilise their forces and take over to manipulate the result to support their ends. Do lobby groups sit back complacently and do nothing? No, because they know how important voting is - they want to have the loudest voice, they want to be visible.

Who speaks for you?
Each time you choose not to vote, each time you remain silent and don't speak out against corruption, injustice and environmental degradation, you willingly give your power to others who are prepared to make the effort. They speak on your behalf whether you agree with them or not. You give your freedom away to those who will happily grab and run with the mandate to do what they will.

By choosing to take an interest and voting "with intent", you make it more difficult for extremist and special interest groups to manipulate: You make it difficult for them to manipulate the economy, to manipulate the finance sector, to manipulate the environment - for obscene profits and payments, all of which are unsustainable and frankly, disgusting given the inequities around the globe.

You give away your freedoms when you choose not to vote. The result is the potential undermining of our collective freedoms. The outcome of elections in one country impacts on those of us in other countries, and not always for the better.

There are repercussions from elections around the globe because our systems are so interlinked.

Once freedoms have been lost, they're incredible difficult, and maybe impossible to claw back. Don't let that happen.

To use the excuse that elections are a foregone conclusion is completely unconvincing. It's as pathetic as not applying for a job because you don't have the perfect set of requirements. If you sit back and don't do anything, of course you'll get a crap result.

I've heard people say "I don't vote, it just encourages them", "My vote won't make any difference so I won't bother" Pah! There's another saying down here in Australia, we vote to "Keep the bastards honest".

Of course it doesn't always go the way I want, but I enjoy the liberty, the freedom, the joy and frustration of democracy in action. Having travelled extensively in countries where freedom is a dangerous dream, where to speak out in favour of democracy and against corruption can lead to indefinite detention, where extreme censorship is part and parcel of everyday life, the ability to vote freely for the candidate of my choice is something I don't take lightly.

Voting is your opportunity to voice anger, disapproval & frustration about things like inaction on climate issues, our addiction to fossil fuels, the need for sustainability, dreadful social inequity but also to encourage those who are working towards a better world.

Be a supporting voice
The people, companies and politicians working toward a more sustainable, equitable world - those who think globally - need all the support you can give them.  It's lonely being a dissenting voice, particularly when well funded, vested interests are nipping at your heels and perhaps offering a bit of incentive to encourage you to sell your soul.

Let the 'good guys' know they're doing well! Write to them - even a simple one line comment - it'll lift their spirits and help keep them on the right track! Write to the tardy ones and encourage them to lift their game.

You know the expression: "Silence is consent" ... if you don't vote, if you don't write to the politicians and agitate for change, if you're silent, they assume you agree with what they're doing. 

Politicians listen to the loudest voices. Make your voice count. 

Link here to NY Times article on compulsory voting, published in 2006, but still relevant today.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Internet Censorship

A short explanation of the effects of the proposed SOPA & PIPA bills that have been tabled in the US.

The US and many other countries have been trying to pass internet restricting policies ostensibly to prevent pirating of movies - which of course all the switched on users will be able to circumvent.

Unfortunately for all of us,  one of the ripple of effects is that these bills play into the hands of governments in the future who may not be entirely pro-democratic.  They have far reaching implications beyond pirating movies.

Reddit co-founder explains why it's important to protest. Further information is available here

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Economic growth at all costs?

How much are we prepared to gamble on continuous economic growth?

Some of you will be aware that I've been reading widely and deeply about climate change, global warming and peak oil in preparation for the A-Z blogging challenge in April. It's been a remarkable journey so far; I've met some amazing people, attended scientific lectures and corresponded with scientists, journalists and super switched on people around the globe.

What has been surprising is that far from being the devastating, miserable, depressing experience I anticipated,  I've become more resilient as I've begun to discuss openly and understand the implications of the change we're experiencing. Perhaps it's a bit like the expression: "Know thine enemy", or possibly "Knowledge is power", or as Dr Russ Harris (ACT and mindfulness expert) says: "Make friends with your demons".

With greater knowledge has come a shift in the chasm of fear I'd experienced earlier - intriguing!

That's not to say I'm not pretty spooked at times, particularly with the lack of foresight and action on the part of governments and some major companies, but far less so than 6 months ago. (I'll save my anger at the greed, lies, obfuscation and lack of ethics and integrity for another time.) Hoping that climate change, global warming and energy depletion is all a bad dream that will go away when I wake up isn't, unfortunately, going to work.

The following 6 minute video produced by the Post Carbon Institute is one of the many informative, accessible explanations of looking at the change that we are beginning to experience as cheap plentiful energy begins to decline.

They explain that the Industrial Revolution was possible due to the harvesting and use of cheap energy. We imagined that this energy was inexhaustible, and many of us in the western world have enjoyed the abundance of goodies available as growth and rampant consumerism overtook values of restraint and moderation. Many of us, including governments have borrowed against the future and are not sure how we're going to repay the debt (or even in some cases if it's possible at all).

More and more economists are questioning the wisdom of continual growth, and are expressing their concern that our current measurement of Gross Domestic Product isn't working as well as they'd been taught. It isn't measuring the health our our economies adequately - as any carer or parent knows, their work isn't included even if they're working 24/7, yet the quality of many people's lives depends on their unpaid work.

We know growth can't go on for ever. There are practical limits to our energy sources and disposal of the wastes we're producing.  The earlier we address these and aim for improvements in our lives that don't include increasing consumption of fossil fuels and other resources, and work to build local prospering communities, the easier the transition will be.

How would you measure the health of our economies?


Friday, January 6, 2012

"The Best Moments for Women In 2011"

Midst all the corruption, ineptitude and obscene financial rewards to executives who've overseen poorly managed companies, and temporarily ignoring the appalling incompetence at government levels on addressing our collective sustainable futures, it's great to focus on something positive!

On Jan 5th 2012 The Huffington Post presented a selection of 50+ significant women who made great contributions during 2011 in areas as diverse as comedy, science, film, politics, sex and sexuality, business, religion and writing, here.

Playing the automated slide show doesn't take long, however I found it more interesting to tap through manually so I could pause and absorb the information about each of the women and why they were significant. The next phase is to watch all the videos!
How do you sum up what this year meant for women? It's easy to think only of what needs to change and hasn't, or of the really awful things that are being done to women around the world -- this minute, in fact.
But plenty of things happened for women this year that are worth celebrating, too. Here are the 50 moments in 2011 that struck us as particularly important or astonishing or lovely. They include wins, memes, athletics, an inauguration, a birth, songs, dances, books, movies, speeches, and feats of precociousness. You probably won't agree with all of our choices -- so tell us in comments what we left out.
And whenever you need to be reminded what good company women are in, we hope you'll return to this list. While 2011 wasn't perfect, it certainly had its moments.
PHOTOS/VIDEOS: The 50 Best Moments For Women In 2011
As you click through, make sure you stop to watch the little girl annoyed at pink toy aisles for girls. I love that her dad listened and explored the issue with her.

Because I seem unable to embed the slide show, I'll whet your appetite with one of Huffpost's selections: how women are perceived in the media.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary makes everyone who's thinks they've heard it before refocus on how badly the media depicts women -- and how we can change that. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Would you give your car keys to a stranger?

I was at a barbeque just before Christmas when the conversation got around to phone scams and how each of us manage the calls.

You know the calls I'm referring to. The phone rings and you're greeted by someone with a heavy accent, and it goes along the lines of "Are you (insert name here) of (insert phone number here)?" They may even mention your suburb.

If you've distracted and aren't really paying attention, you might thoughtlessly confirm the details.

The standard spiel continues along the following lines: "I'm calling on behalf of Microsoft to let you know there's been a serious issue reported with your windows programme.  I'm from X company and need to perform an immediate mainteance check to ensure the problem doesn't happen again."

They're full of tech talk and use words designed to bewilder and confuse the average computer user, but most of all they're working hard to make you worried that all is not well with your computer, and are insistent that this needs to be fixed NOW! The caller is insistent, persuasive and convincing.  They use phrases like "corrupt files", "viruses" and "error code".

They create a sense of panic.

Reports of this particular scam have come in from London to Brisbane, New York to Christchurch and most places in-between. Far too many people have been caught on the hop; the figures are sketchy due to many people being too embarrassed to report the theft once they realise they've been taken in by scammers.
from "The Little Black Book of Scams" - Australian Competition & Consumer Commission
They've been gullible, trusting or naive or maybe ill, elderly or confused and followed the instructions thus enabling the scammer to instal viruses and spyware on their computers. The scammers could be using payphones or disposable cell phones, so they're well nigh impossible to catch even if you get a number and report them.  The victim may have paid for 'Life Time Support' by PayPal, credit card, or given bank details, thus enabling accounts to be emptied as they sit and watch.

Each of us sitting round the table had had up to 10 calls a week over a period of a couple of weeks - the calls stop for a while, then start up again. The calls are invasive, irritating and time consuming.

They've been known to leave some people feeling that their privacy has been invaded, and if the scammer has become abusive, people can be left feeling insecure and rattled.  This is the reaction of people who haven't succumbed to the scam.  If you had lost money and thought the scammer could appear at your front door, you'd be sick with fear and apprehension.

The conversation got around to musing if there could be some sort of a link between anger towards Indian students in Melbourne and other Australian cities, and anger about the scam. Could someone with a short fuse, who has perhaps been "got" or who knows someone who has lost money and peace of mind, react physically? Might some people target an unsuspecting student who appears to be of the same ethnicity as the scammer? We have no idea, but it's possible.

We put our heads together to try and come up with some different ways to use the experience as a chance to do something worthwhile. Amongst other things, we decided we wanted to express our concern to the scammer about the possible repercussions to foreign students in Australia as a direct result of their scam.

Being rude - nope.

Appeal to the scammers better nature - no.

"I'm recording you" - a recording could be used as an instructional tape so people know what to listen for. Could be useful.

Putting the phone of speaker so your children can listen - discuss how language can be used to persuade - good!

Tell the caller you're expecting a call from their Embassy to discuss scams. Could work.

Ask them if they believe in Karma - remind them of the repercussions of their actions. Seems to work.

Most recently though, I've decided simply to say "This scam has a direct impact on students living in Australia. Your action makes them unsafe and encourages racism." This seems to work although it needs to be refined so the word scam comes later - strangely they usually hang up when they hear the word scam. I'm probably tempting fate here, but since using that one, the calls have tapered off significantly.

If you have been caught off guard and given the scammer access to your computer: Disconnect immediately, phone your bank to alert them to what's happened and cancel your credit card, and as your bank statements come in, check them carefully. Contact a reputable company, (trusted friends and neighbours are a good source of information) let them know what's happened and they'll remove any malware that's been installed.

How do you manage scammers? Do you hang up immediately, are you rude, do you play along for entertainment value or have you devised a wonderfully creative response?

More information on scams:

  • The Microsoft scam page information is here
  • Information on how to recognise different kinds of scams is here
  • An A-Z of fraud is here
  • A Police warning about the above scam is here
  • The Little Black Book of Scams can be downloaded for free from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission here
  • ... and I'm sure there are many, many more links and that this is just the tip of a massive scammy iceberg.

The title of this piece came from a forum where someone asked "Would you give your car keys to a stranger? That's the equivalent of what you're doing if you allow a stranger access to your computer."