Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summer Notes: Five unrelated items...

1. Economic Disaster: Why is it that (almost) everyone understands - even the writings of Ronald Regan have it right - that not raising the debt ceiling will have catastrophic effects on the US and world economies? The very same people in Congress that have routinely passed the debt ceiling 74 times since 1962 - have decided that this time they will create a national disaster for their own uncertain political reasons. There are in Washington a group of inexperienced junior Congess representatives that believe that seeing the great "train wreck" would bring them great satisfaction. We need responsible legislation - we deserve not to be held hostage to false patriotism... Our tea party friends are ready to let us go up in smoke... Lets hope that before its too late, before next week, cooler headed sanity has returned to Washington!

2. Bay Area Summer Weather:
Rule #1 in the Bay Area - If you dont like the weather - travel five miles and it will be different. On a typical July day on the coast it will be a foggy 58 degrees and in Fremont it will be sunny and clear and 80.
A geography lesson for those who do not live in the SF Bay region...Fremont where we live is inland

San Francisco is on the ocean coast and the coast of the Bay and has large variations.
Rule #2 "The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco!" (Attributed to Mark Twain)

July morning - Alameda Island in SF Bay .. fog and cold...

Fremont Hills - same day

3. Walking Stick Insects:

One of the master teachers with whom I work, offered me two small walking stick insects three years ago – She told me that they are easy to care for, being vegetarians. She fed hers a few rose leaves each week (rose plants do not go dormant in our part of Northern California. I purchased a small plastic terrarium and it stands on my desk.

My desk-top walking sticks

All that first year my walking sticks grew larger each month – then one died during the winter- early in the summer my one remaining insect died. But this was not the end! Walking sticks are parthenogenic – they can produce viable eggs from one parent. And before dying mine produced eggs! Soon eggs hatched and my terrarium was once more full of walking sticks! I am now into the third generation. These are the ideal pet for the undemanding – they sit perfectly still – doing a good imitation of a stick – and every once in a while they move one of their six legs just a twitch.

Wild living walking stick

The are not the sort of pets you want to give a name or take out and relate to… I have had some concern regarding the legality of owning walking sticks – might they decimate California agriculture if released? Today I saw a county Ag guy collecting insect traps looking for pests – and so I asked about walking sticks – he said that while they are not endemic they are not a problem…go ahead and enjoy them!

4. Brass: Brass instrumental music usually brings to mind loud blaring Souza marches or Christmas music… Judy and I this last week attended a concert of the Bay Brass in the Stanford Cathedral. The group is a labor of love by the musicians involved – it is made up of the top brass musicians from the major symphonies and ballet orchestras in the SF Bay Area. They have no formal director but make decisions together. They seek to explore the wide range of music available to brass instruments.

Stanford University Church

The concert was amazing with a range of compositions from many periods, composers and styles of music. They are a leading supporter of the music program at Menlo School in Menlo Park Ca - and for an entire week the professional musicians provided workshops and support for the music students. This concert was the Bay Brass demonstrating to the students the range of music that could be performed with Brass Instruments – much of it was the gentler side of brass... On other nights during the week there were various student brass groups performing in concert… It is amazing to me to see high school age students performing with such poise and skill!

5. Genetic manipulation in Corn: Need another complex moral dilemma? Suppose someone spent two years developing a new mechanical or electronic device – something brand new… Do you think that person should be able to apply for a patent to protect his or her intellectual property? Suppose the product is produced by splicing genes from different species or different varieties of the same species to produce a totally new genetic product. Once developed it can be bred true each generation. Same two years – same hard work… Should this be patentable? Suppose the product is special high yield corn?

Corn varieties with wide range of genetic variations - hardy, but low yield

Traditionally farmers grow a crop and save seed for the following year – Ah – but now that is enfringing on the copyrights of the owner… The farmer is now required each year to buy the high priced seed if he want to grow the high yield crop.

Because this corn is high yielding it also requires more fertilizer to grow –The costs may be prohibitive if the farmer if in the third world. Corn is fertilized by the wind – and so the prize corn pollen drifts over to neighbor fields and they get the genes for free – Does the holder of the patent have rights to that corn too? The genes can even transfer to non corn grasses and then be passed on.

Mono culture of genetically similar corn

What and how far does it go?One of the common genetic alterations to corn is to make it resistant to herbicides so that the field can be doused with chemicals – how much of those chemicals end up in our food – either directly or through the meat we eat? Same is true of introducing genes that produce natural chemicals resiastant to predatory insects.The proponents say “ it is a hungry world out there – and we have to increase our production of food or face greater famine. That’s very true. But we are primarily benefiting large corporate farmers who can afford the additional costs, to grow these high yield crops, to make the maximum profits.

Wild grass is similar enough to corn that genes can be transferred to grass
and passed on in later generations to corn

Trying to grow the same crop can be devastating for third world farmers due to extra expense for seed and fertilizer or possibly less than ideal habitat. The bottom line is that we simply don’t know the long term effects of altering the herbicide and pesticide proderties of our grain crops… Imporatant issue – stay tuned! (This section triggered by an article and conversation with my cousin Laverne who lives on a farm in Kansas)

6. Links of the Week:

a. "History of stuff" has developed a series of short videos that help us consumers to understand the materials we buy in common products and their effects on us and on our environment. Excellent!! This is their latest production:

b. Southern Poverty Law Center: Take some time to learn about hate groups active in America today. Educate yourself to human rights issues.