You are currently browsing the Breaching The Web blog archives for November, 2008.

Yard Sharing

November 16th, 2008

I just learned of a very cool idea called “yard sharing.” The idea is to match up people who have yards but no time or interest in gardening with people who want to garden but have no yard. The property owner gets a share of the harvest, and the gardener gets a place to grow stuff. It’s like a community garden, only it’s a private arrangment.

The idea seems to be really taking off in Portland, OR, although similar programs can be found elsewhere in the US and around the world.

Experimenting on the weak

November 13th, 2008

Monsanto is widely distributing seeds for genetically modified crops in India, with the cooperation of the government. Farmers are told that although these seeds cost twice as much as conventional seeds, the plants will not require pesticides. The sad reality is that they cost nearly four times as much as conventional seeds, they require pesticides AND they require four times as much water as conventional crops (a fact which is usually withheld from the farmers). And after all that, the farmer cannot save seeds him or herself for the next year, and must buy fresh seeds again.

Farmers who live at the very edge of existance in India are being sold this bill of goods by unscrupulous seed dealers who don’t give them complete information, and by Monsanto, who is pushing GM crops hard with the cooperation of the Indian government. Neither traditional nor GM seeds provide insurance for the farmer in the event of a bad season, but failure of a GM crop leaves a farmer far worse off than failure of a traditional crop, mostly because of the debt loads required to obtain GM seeds. Thousands of these destitute farmers are committing suicide across broad regions of India, leaving their families completely destitute. This “GM genocide” is an epic tragedy. Although the suicides are tragic enough, the situation is worsened by the fact that the debt does not die with the farmer, instead it is passed on to his (for these farmers are usually male) wife and children, who become homeless, resourceless outcasts.

This tragedy is akin to the marketing of baby formula to mothers in poor countries. Both represent efforts of Western companies to profit from the lowest economic classes in poor countries, without any consideration of the effects the products they are pushing might have on such economically marginal people. Baby milk mixed with contaminated water becomes poison; GM crops that fail become an economic death sentence.

Human beings really suck sometimes.

You are a pill-purchasing entity

November 12th, 2008

A new study suggests that healthy people might benefit from taking cholesterol drugs, even if they don’t have high cholesterol or any risk factors for heart disease. Healthy people who took the drug suffered from fewer heart attacks than people who did not.

This sounds like great news, but caution is warranted before we put our entire adult population on Crestor to prevent heart attacks. From a public health perspective, it’s desirable to see a population-level improvement in health outcomes before you implement any kind of prevention program. For example, there is a clear, measurable population-wide effect of folic acid supplementation during the early stages of pregnancy, and a smaller, although still measurable effect of folic acid supplementation before conception — in both situations, the rates of spina bifida and similar birth defects are dramatically decreased. If only some people, or only a very small number of people benefited from taking folic acid supplements, then the CDC’s controversial “all women, every day” folic acid advisory would be unwarranted. But the decrease in the number of babies born with spina bifida when their mothers have taken folic acid is so very, very large that the advisory makes sense (although it has been handled ham-fistedly).

What’s this got to do with Crestor? Well, on the basis of the above study, you might think that everyone should take Crestor to reduce their risk of heart attack, regardless of what their specific risk factors for heart attack are. You might think that the someone should sponsor a media campaign to educate the public and doctors about this fantastic new finding. But look at the reported results — 120 people would have to take the drug for 2 years to prevent a single heart attack. Getting more sleep, eating more leafy greens or getting 30 minutes of exercise every day would prevent more heart attacks than that. This study has not demonstrated a large enough, population-level effect to justify the billions that a population based prevention campaign would require.

That said, you should of course make your own health decisions in consultation with your doctor. I’m not telling you to not take Crestor or any other drug. I’m just saying that an anti-cholesterol drug regimen as a prevention therapy doesn’t make sense from a public health perspective.

Book promotion in the 21st century

November 11th, 2008

Inspired by Medley’s post about author Sarah Pekkanen’s website, I looked up the website of the book I just finished reading, The Secret Life of Lobsters, by Trevor Corson, and found a wealth of lobster-related information that isn’t in the book, such as a confessional tale of the book’s challenges, a lobster FAQ and user-submitted lobster stories. Although none of this is quite as cool as Pekkanen’s innovative e-mail strategy (see Medley for more on that), it’s still dynamic and engaging.

By the way, I highly recommend The Secret Life of Lobsters. Lobsters, the most sustainably fished marine creature, are far more interesting than I anticipated. They have incredibly complex — and flexible — migration patterns, mating rituals and survival strategies. The book goes beyond just talking about the lobsters and also examines the relationships among fisherman, scientists and the state. It’s gripping stuff.


November 10th, 2008

Off and on over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking (and saying) that I ought to buy stock in AIG. After all, if the government is going to spend all those billions bailing it out, they aren’t going to let it fail. And since it’s lost over 90% of it’s value, I would assume that after this recession, it would be worth something in the neighborhood of its old value. But as I’ve watched AIG’s stock price fall and fall and fall and fall and fall, I started to think I must be wrong, because I surely can’t be the only person to have this idea.

So here we are, and AIG is not only getting more money, but under more favorable terms. That’s either proof of the government’s commitment to keeping AIG afloat, or it’s a nasty game by AIG’s management to loot as much as possible from the US Treasury before going under. Either way, I don’t want to have anything to do with this stinking mess of inbred opportunism. I’ll keep my money where it is for now, thanks.

The Cigarette Camps

November 10th, 2008

After the liberation of Paris in World War II, the US Army set up several camps around the port city of Le Havre. These camps were staging areas for men entering and exiting the European theater — no one was in these camps for very long. As with most WWII army camps, they all had nonsensical code names unrelated to their location or purpose to ensure security.

In the case of Le Havre, the camps were all named after US cigarette brands. According to The Cigarette Camps, the brand names were thought to provide some comfort to the men. Given how important cigarettes were during the war, I suppose this isn’t surprising. The link above provides lots of pictures and personal reminisces of the camps.

I love America

November 4th, 2008

I love my country, and I’m so proud of it I could bust. I waited in a long line today to vote. And I cast my vote for the first African American major party candidate, someone I hope will be our next president (I still can’t let myself believe it).

I can’t believe I had the opportunity to vote for our first black president. I know the hard work starts tomorrow, but just for today I am happier than a lobster in a pile of rotten halibut. It’s a cliche to say it, but this really could only happen in America, and being even a small part of this process is very cool.

(Image courtesy of Now This)