Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Food for Thought

Food is a right as set out by the Declaration of Human Rights. Although this means that people should be able to make decisions about what they consume, I believe that the true spirit of the right is that people should not go hungry and should not be malnourished. Unfortunately, many people in the wealthy and well fed nations are making conscious, misinformed decisions about the food they eat, and these decisions are infringing on the rights of poorer, hungrier people. The decisions I am taking about are people’s desire for organic foods and their mistrust of genetically modified (GM) foods. By championing organic foods and protesting GM foods, the wealthy nations of the world are not only driving up the price of food, but also limiting the crop yield and nutritional value of food grown in poorer regions. This is causing the needless deaths of millions of people every year and producing a generation of children who do not get the proper nutrients from the food they do eat. People should realize the effects of their decisions and take a much more skeptical and critical view of the propaganda surrounding organic and GM foods.

The most important point I must make is that no farming of any kind is natural. Farming is an invention of mankind and never existed before 10,000 years ago. The second we started selectively growing and breeding crops from the wild we began to interfere and change the natural process by which the Earth has grown food for millions of years. There is not doubt that the ecology of Earth was dramatically changed when we began farming, and today crops grown on farms, no matter how organic they are, do not resemble their distant relatives that grew in the wild. I realize that often the biggest problem people have with modern farming is the use of evil chemicals on their plants. Many see pesticides and herbicides as foreign and dangerous invention of science. The fact is that we invented no such thing. The majority of pesticides and herbicides are merely purified versions of chemicals created in the laboratory of life. Plants have been fighting off pests and competing plants for millions of years and have done a much better job at developing these chemicals that we ever could; we merely harness their power. Many of the same chemicals are likely in use in organic farming, albeit in lower concentrations and from natural sources. It is this low efficiency and the lower success rate that comes with using natural techniques that is the biggest issue with organic farming. It makes food more expensive and this is the last thing food should be. Perhaps if it was healthier then this would be a good choice, but to date there has been no clear-cut evidence that this is true either. In summation organic foods are not natural, more expensive and not appreciably healthier.

The fight against GM foods is part of the fight against non-organic foods, but a much more damaging agrument. GM foods promise (and deliver) higher crop yields, more robust crops, crops that use less water and deplete the soil at a slower rate and food that is, unequivocally, healthier. Although GM foods are currently more expensive, the higher efficiency and increased nutritional value easily offset the cost and with wide-spread adoption, costs would undoubtedly fall. Unfortunately many people are scared of frankenfood with little to no reason other than ignorance and fear. When first introduced 20 years ago, many people were afraid of the unknown affects of GM foods, but those fears have been laid to rest with no evidence of adverse effects. GM foods have been embraced in North America and are currently gaining traction in South America and East Asia, much to my pleasure. Unfortunately, there are millions of people in North America who have decided they are evil and Europe still refuses to give up the fight (the EU does not allow GM foods to be sold). Although you can argue that this is their choice, you cannot argue that it does not have repercussions worldwide. For instance, because the EU does not allow GM foods, and because much of Europe’s food is imported from Africa, many African farmers as a result will not use GM foods. This is putting needless strain on a woefully malnourished continent and surely causing millions of avoidable deaths. Wealthy countries also gives billions in aid to poor countries, much of it to fight hunger, and people’s political fight against GM foods in Europe and North America means not enough of this money goes toward buying better GM seeds for hungry farmers. It may be an easy choice for us to make, but to force it upon a person dying of hunger is deplorable. Furthermore, GM foods are not even significantly different from farming practices 1000’s of years old. Reproductive engineering, which includes selective breeding and cross breeding of plants and animals, has been a common farming practice for millennia and are just a more rudimentary processes by which farmers modify the genetic code of organisms to produce a better crop.

The point I hope to make is that although making a poor decision based on ideology and superstition may be fine if you can afford it and helps you sleep at night, but it is morally wrong when the repercussions are felt the world over. It would be nice if we lived in a world where there was food for everyone and we could take our time and all the resources we wanted in growing it, but we do not live in that fantasy world. The fact is that millions die every year from malnutrition. The population is growing, but the Earth isn’t. Not only must we make better use of our arable land, but 100 years of poor land and water use, combined with the specter of global warming, means that we will likely lose some of our arable land in the coming decades. We must make informed decisions about our food choices and choose those that are more efficient and most sustainable. Regardless of the propaganda, organic foods are not a sustainable solution for the world. There are not enough resources and money to feed everyone with organic food and the reasons to do so would be suspect at best. GM foods could prove to be a scientific saviour of the worlds disenfranchised just as sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics brought vastly improved health and unbelievably lower fatality rates to millions worldwide. There are a multitude of sustainable farming techniques and the most sustainable of those are ones which involve GM foods and not organic ones. We should strive to feed the world sustainably and not give into our ignorance and our bourgeois tastes.


Friday, January 29, 2010

Happy Friday

Long have I been a fan of the radio. I grew up in a house in which CBC Radio 2 was constantly on. It was on some much in fact, that there was often no one listening to it. My father would simply leave in on the morning, and when I got home in the afternoon it would still be playing. Throughout this time I never really listened to it and certainly never really appreciated it – likely because the last demographic CBC Radio is targeted to is the under 20 crowd. That all changed this past year due two large changes in my life: unemployment and my first car.

I spent the first 4 months of 2009 doing what I can only describe as living the life. Basically I spent my days cooking, eating, reading and playing video games with my evenings filled with trips to the gym to workout and play squash. During most of this time spent at home the radio would quietly play away. I would only semi-listen to it, but it was there filling my head with music, opinion and news. It was then that I was introduced to one of my favourite ways to spend an hour and a half – The Q with Jian Ghomeshi (from who I stole the title of this entry). Jian is an extremely talented radio host with an amazing insight in the arts in Canada and around the world. Beyond that he often does excellent interviews with many interesting personalities and puts his television contemporary, George Stroumboulopoulos, to shame. He became a bit of a sensation when he skillfully handled an arrogant and possibly drunk Billy Bob Thornton, and uses those same skills everyday to get interesting information and insight from his guests. (This morning he played a replay of his interview with Lenard Cohen)

After my winter of relaxation, I moved to Halifax and inherited my father’s old Saab 900s – I should mention here that I loved that car and mourn its retirement everday. I spent a lot of time in that car touring around the province and filling my days with adventure. Even though it was equipped with satellite radio, I always found myself listening to Radio One. I would listen to the Q in the morning and Maritime Noon and Main Street in the afternoon. Cruising down the coast or to the beach with those familiar voices and interesting topics are some of my fondest memories and a very good summer. Although I do not have my car anymore I have recently taken to listening to the radio here at work. The simulated company and mental stimulation CBC Radio supplies me with helps me get through even the dullest parts of the workday.

I would like to end this entry with a plea for all you reading to go out and try listening to the radio every now and then. We are very lucky to live in a country which such good public radio, free from commercials and stupid, cheesey radio personalities. Unfortunately, the CBC has been under funding attack for the last ten years, likely because many of you who do pay for it don’t even use it. So go and listen to the Q, or Dispatches, or Vinyl Tap (with Randy Bachman) and enjoy what Canadian culture has to offer. And remember in our age of the internet, no one needs a receiver to listen to the radio.


Note: One of the best gems on Radio One is The Age of Persuasion with Terry O’Reilly at 11.30am on Mondays. He tells very interesting stories and anecdotes about the advertising industry and is my favourite show. The entire show is also available online:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Social Psuedosciences

The study of culture, ideas, history or the economy is a study of, in the essence, complexity. Rarely, if ever, does the focused study of these fields reveal much more than either an axiom of siloed knowledge or a very approximate model of its causes and effects.

Coming from the world of engineering I understand very well the gross inaccuracies of either a top down (taking effects and working backwards) or bottom up model (taking fundamental causes and working towards effects) and that often these models must be used, but should not be relied upon. In my specific field of material science, there are many theories and explanations for phenomena at the atomic level, but as of yet no model which uses such atomic causes has been able to produce results anything like that in real life. Luckily, in engineering, we only need a working knowledge and not a true understanding. I eventually came to the conclusion that almost all engineering is just a working knowledge, with very little to any true understanding. We leave that to the physicists (and perhaps computer scientists?).

This problem with our ability to understand complex phenomena becomes much more dangerous and troublesome when dealing with the social sciences, where very little, if any, working knowledge exists. It is perhaps because of this lack of working knowledge that we tend to rely so heavily models to explain and attempt to, often very badly, predict future occurrences. I should explain here that working knowledge generally is a direct result of highly controlled scientific observation, which may be possible with an aluminum bracket, but not any activity that involves people. I realize this is a contentious point as a great many social experiments are conducted at universities everyday. I contest that no human can ever be impartial when studying another human being. For any true science to be conducted there must be a removal of impartiality on the part of the observer, or what I think is the more important part of the experiment, on the part of the designer.

The second issue I have with the reverence the social sciences receive in modern culture is the siloed nature of its study. I have yet to know of an academic who has the vast knowledge, training and resources to actually be a sociologist/ economist/ psychologist/ historian/ anthropologist/political scientist, but so many of the problems they study could easily fall under any of these categories. A sociologist, historian or economist will all look at the Great Depression from vastly different viewpoints, but which of their arguments is the most valid? The truth is all of their arguments are likely very valid and that each of them has revealed a cause, while at the same time each likely missed many more. This is a battle against complexity and should never been one we so easily dismiss as being one. We are almost never right, just slightly closer to the truth. (Truth here is in italics as in many cases it may not exist, but that is another blog)

NOTE: I recently finished reading the book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim N. Taleb and it has undoubtedly influenced my thinking. At the same time I have had these thoughts for some time, but must thank Mr. Taleb for helping me form them into more concise arguments.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"My one regret in life is that I am not someone else."

Who doesn’t love a funny Jewish comedian? The number of them is seemingly endless, from Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld to Mel Brooks and Adam Sandler and many of them are considered the greatest comedians to ever live. I have personally looked up to many of them as my idols and have even attempted to be more like them. But there is one out of this group that really posses not only the amazing funny gene of all the others, but also an artistic talent and style that has never been rivalled. This man is the movie genius Woody Allen.

I was in some ways raised on Woody Allen as my mom sat me down as a young child to watch many of his movies. She lives by one of his jokes, that it is “illegal to buy retail,” and Annie Hall is her favourite movie. I went through a long Woody Allen hiatus, but recently I went on a whirlwind of movie watching and watched at least a dozen of his movies I had not seen. I was addicted to his wit and literary genius. I loved the all the beautiful New York apartments his characters live in. I loved the intellectual feel to the movies and his clear distaste of ignorance. Every actor you could imagine has been in his movies and Woody Allen is superb at casting and writing the perfect roles for them. As you watch the movies the common themes, mainly his clear distrust of the institution of marriage, become clear and get played out again and again but never stop being funny.

Not only is Woody Allen a master of satire and comedy, but also makes amazing dramas. A couple of his latest movies which were filmed in London, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, show just how great and exciting a story he can write. They are suspenseful and enlightening and Allen leaves you with a crystal clear message from the movies.

Whether it is a comedy or drama, a satire or a musical, one thing you can count on when you see that classic white lettering during the credits is that you’re in for a great movie. For those who want to watch some Woody Allen movies, here’s a list of my favourites.

Annie Hall, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Husbands & Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Deconstructing Harry, Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream

Friday, July 31, 2009

General Accepted Ambiguousness

I write this entry sitting in a classroom learning the various ins and outs of accounting. Perhaps I should be more closely paying attention, but I can assure you that I am a superb multitasker. I have not written a blog entry in months, but I felt that filling this time with writing would be more productive than endless trawling of news on the internet. The main reason I am writing this entry is because of what I have learned in accounting and the effect of this knowledge on my outlook of the business world; in short, learning how companies keep track of their finances has shown me just how contrived and open to dishonesty accounting practices really are.

Accounting practices do follow guidelines which are supposed to keep them honest. The guidelines are referred to as the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or GAAP and companies in North America have to follow them by law. Unfortunately, due to a total lack of transparency, the accounting practices of a company are very difficult to uncover. Each company puts out various financial statements, but because they are able to control and shift their own revenues and costs around from year to year, they can easily present a much rosier or poorer picture of what is actually occurring at the firm. This leads outside accountants and analysts to perform forensic accounting in which they attempt to dissect the financial statement and more or less guess at what has been occurring at the company. This analysis is the public’s view of the company and what affects the company’s stock price. So, in the end, a company’s stock price is more or less dependent on statements which may or may not tell the whole truth about a company and this lack of transparency can have a huge effect on the stock market overall. This system has been improved over the years after such several companies twisted and contorted these rules to publish completely misleading financial statements. The most notorious of these companies was Enron, who literally made their crumbling shell of a company look like solid gold.

Luckily history tells us that dishonest accounting practices eventually catch up with you, but only after hurting lots and lots of people in your downfall. Full transparency of accounting, perhaps disclosed to a government run auditor, could help keep companies truly honest while maintaining some degree of discretion. Either way, the rules are set up to cover manager’s interest rather than all the other stakeholders in the company, from the private investors to the receptionists. Governments of advanced economies need to establish strong transparency guidelines to avoid crippling crisis in the financial system due to gross misinformation.