Monday, February 25, 2019

Biotech in Agriculture: Blessing or Curse?

For personal reasons, I pay more attention than I might otherwise to doings in Omaha, Nebraska (a niece of mine lives there).  As I write this, they're enduring a blizzard with up to 50-MPH winds, temperatures near zero, and up to a foot of snow coming down.  Most of them, that is.  The governor, on the other hand, a Republican named Pete Ricketts, is at the Agricultural Outlook Forum outside Washington, DC participating in a panel discussion of biotechnology in farming. 

In a brief interview that appeared in the Omaha World-Herald, Ricketts painted a glowing future of apples that don't turn brown, salmon that grow faster, and other developments that will feed an increasing population.  Almost in the same breath, he admitted that the public's view of genetic engineering is skeptical, and environmental groups criticize large-scale farming for the effect it has on climate change.  The panel that Ricketts was scheduled to participate in at the forum is called "The Evolving Regulatory Landscape and Adoption of Precision Agriculture." 

Biotechnology in general, and genetic engineering in particular, are specialized topics that most people know a little bit about, but only a few people know a lot about.  In such cases, the few who know a lot have both the privilege and responsibility to use their knowledge wisely.  But wisdom in one person's view may be folly to another.

The tension that Gov. Ricketts pointed out in his interview with the Omaha World-Herald involves two camps or lines of thought.  For simplicity, we'll call them biotech optimists and biotech pessimists.  The optimists, which evidently include the Governor and his fellow panelists at the forum (a biotech scientist and two biotech-firm executives), believe that biotech will improve agriculture and make good-quality food more available.  We should bear in mind that increasingly, farming these days is big farming:  large corporations operating huge spreads with highly mechanized processes that employ fewer people all the time per unit of product made.  That's just the definition of increased productivity, and it's a driving force behind biotech and most other production-oriented businesses these days. 

The biotech pessimists are a more varied group.  They are no doubt responsible for a good bit of the regulatory landscape mentioned in the forum's title.  Some of the reasons for regulation are protection of endangered species, abatement of water and air pollution (have you ever driven within a few hundred yards of an old-style pig farm?—you'd remember it if you did), and prevention of unlikely but devastating disasters that might happen from genetic engineering experiments gone wrong.  The positions of such pessimists range from mild (horse-trading adjustments to regulations in cooperation with biotech industries) to extreme (abolishing all genetic engineering from the planet), but they are united in their opposition to simply letting biotech optimists do whatever they want, with no restrictions whatsoever.

In a well-running democracy, these opposing interest groups make their opinions and facts known and reach a compromise in cooperation with legislative bodies—a compromise that both allows useful advances in biotechnology and avoids the worst harms that can result from it.  Whether this democracy of ours is running that well is a question for another time.

A factor that has to be added to this mix in recent years is the increasingly international nature of all trade, including trade in farm commodities.  One hard fact that Gov. Ricketts mentioned is that Nebraska's farm income for 2018 is expected to be the lowest since 2002, and one factor in that decline is the downward pressure on prices due to international free trade in farm products.  Adam Smith's invisible hand is at work here, making sure that in an ideal world of free trade, the price for each commodity is established by the most efficient producer worldwide, leading to an overall maximum efficiency.  Mathematically, the principle is irrefutable, but mathematics takes no cognizance of nations, cultures, customs, or traditions.

The biotech optimists tend to be on Adam Smith's side, if for no other reason than if we don't take the next step in biotech improvements, somebody else will and they'll undercut us productivity-wise.  In other words, if we don't beat them at their own game, we lose.  The pessimists would step in and question the propriety of the whole game. 

Without farming, we wouldn't have civilization at all—no universities, no cities, no modern conveniences, no science, and no people—well, almost no people, by comparison to what the globe supports now.  Any nation with a considerable land mass suitable for farming is going to have to deal with the question of how that farming is conducted:  whether it is protected from adverse influences such as foreign competition and excessive regulation that would threaten its existence, or whether it is left to fend for itself, which in a democracy gets increasingly difficult as the number of people directly and indirectly supported by farming dwindle.  If you read agrarians such as Wendell Berry, you will conclude that in the U. S., we have largely taken the latter course, treating farming increasingly like we treat the military:  as the sole preoccupation of a few specialists we need pay no attention to, as long as they do for us what we want. 

But such neglect is a recipe for long-term disaster.  Taking any group of people for granted—farmers, soldiers, engineers, even politicians—is to treat them as means, and not ends in themselves:  human beings like us who deserve attention, justice, and mercy.  I do not have all the answers, or even a few of them, regarding how much biotechnology is enough.  But farmers perform an increasingly neglected service to us all, whether here or abroad.  And I hope that we don't sacrifice farming communities for the sake of free trade, or freedom from genetically-modified crops, or any other ideal shibboleth that looks good on paper, but would wreak havoc among people we may never meet, but upon whom we depend for every bite we put in our mouths. 

Sources:  The Omaha World-Herald carried the article "Ricketts joins panel on farming biotechnology during D. C. visit, calls for productivity, innovation" on Feb. 22, 2019 at  The Agricultural Outlook Forum's website is at 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Microsoft Puts NewsGuard On Duty

At beaches and pools you'll sometimes see a notice that reads "Lifeguard On Duty," or more often, "No Lifeguard On Duty—Swim At Your Own Risk."  Recently Microsoft, originator of the Edge mobile browser, started including a feature in it called NewsGuard.  The user must activate it, but once he or she does, every news site that's been rated by NewsGuard (about 2000 so far) gets either a green checkmark or a red exclamation point.  Green means the site has passed enough of the nine criteria NewsGuard uses to assess credibility and transparency to meet with their approval.  And of course, red means the site flunked.  The example NewsGuard uses of a site that flunks is, which is operated by Russia but doesn't make that fact exactly obvious. 

The fact that such an influential organization as Microsoft thought it was a good idea to include this third-party app (NewsGuard is an independent operation based in New York City) says something about the anxiety that tech and social media companies feel concerning the issues of fake news, divisiveness, and related matters. 

Reasons for this are not hard to find.  As we learned how Russia tried to influence the 2016 elections with fake social media accounts, we were bombarded with tweets from the Oval Office saying all sorts of things, some of which were actually true.  When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was called before Congress last spring concerning misuse of Facebook data by the research firm Cambridge Analytica, he appeared out of his depth when he was asked about the finer points of free speech and what his firm's responsibilities were with regard to spreading disinformation and falsehoods, as well as selling information on users that could be used in politically suspect ways.

On its own website, NewsGuard boasts that it employs "professional journalists," not algorithms, to evaluate news sites.  These journalists presumably sit around a table and debate whether a given site is hiding its true source of financing, for example (not always an easy thing to determine), or whether the news that shows up on it can be verified by independent and multiple sources.  This is nothing more than good journalism, or what used to be called good journalism.  In an era when the word "viral" means something good, at least when it comes to news, "good" often substitutes for "popular," but there's a big difference.

Here's where the philosopher's distinction between "objective" and "subjective" comes in handy.  We have a sense that objective news is better than subjective news, but there's a problem with that.  As the late Mortimer Adler wrote, "We call something objective when it is the same for me, for you, and for anyone else.  We call something subjective when it differs from one individual to another and when it is exclusively the possession of one individual and of no one else."  By that criterion, there aren't that many objective news reports anywhere.  Pictures of a solar eclipse, maybe—obituaries, at least with regard to the facts about a death.  But maybe the late So-and-So was a nice person to you, but a real SOB to others.  Was he a nice guy or not?  That's subjective, as is most of the news reported by even the most sober and responsible journalists, unless it's C-Span-type relaying of an event without any selection, editing, or other intervention by a third party.

So, saying some news sites are objective and others are subjective wouldn't get us very far.  Instead, NewsGuard falls back on the distinction between truth and falsehood, and relies on sources other than the site itself to reveal falsehood.  But of course, those sources may not get it right either, whatever "right" means.  The upshot of all this is that if you, as a NewsGuard evaluator of a website, find that most people and institutions you trust say that a thing is false or misleading, you're going to decide it's false or misleading, and you'll give that site a red "do not trust" rating.

The fear in some circles is that a liberal or other systematic bias may reveal itself in the ways that NewsGuard rates sites.  And I'm sure that something like this will happen.  Already has run a story saying that NewsGuard is "controversial."  It's understandable that the site used by NewsGuard itself on its own website as an example of a red-rated source, complains about the red rating. 

The deeper question is whether the NewsGuard feature will make any difference to users.  The hope is that the hapless passive consumer of news, who formerly was suckered into believing all kinds of claptrap, will now see the red rating on his favorite sites and will turn over a new leaf, avoiding places like Breitbart and the Drudge Report and becoming a more enlightened and useful citizen and voter. 

To some, that's a hope.  To others, that's a fear, which is why many news sources whose common characteristics are hard to discern, but may generally be classed as conservative (with exceptions), have expressed concern that the wide availaibility of NewsGuard will lead to some sort of discrimination against them. 

If it's a problem, it's not one that I would personally spend a lot of sleepless nights over.  For one thing, NewsGuard doesn't keep you from viewing a site.  It just tells you that there may be problems with it, and details the problems.  In that sense, it's just a kind of fact-checker or background-provider, and I see no particular harm in that. 

As long as using NewsGuard is voluntary, and as long as its ratings, or something similar, don't acquire the force of compulsion or law and succeed in banning sites altogether, it seems to me that the app can do more good than harm.  Of course, I haven't bothered to check whether they're rating my site, but I doubt that it's one of the top 2000 news sources that NewsGuard has inspected.  We try to tell the truth here, but most readers know this blog mixes opinion with facts.  For those who can't tell the difference, maybe NewsGuard will help.

Sources:  I referred to the NewsGuard website at and their nine criteria at  I also viewed the RT story on NewsGuard at and the Wikipedia article on NewsGuard.  The quote by Mortimer Adler is from his Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York:  Collier, 1985), p. 9.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Legal Shoplifting

At least that's what it looks like.  In a few convenience stores in San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle, you get in by having a certain Amazon app on your phone.  Once inside, you simply find what you want and walk out with it.  Cameras, RFID sensors, and other technology figures out who you are, how you've set up to pay, and charges your credit or debit card as you walk out the door with you box of Cheerios or whatever.  No human being directly intervenes, and you don't have to stand in line to scan the item yourself and pay.  You just pick it up and go; hence the name "Go store."

A recent Associated Press article describes how Amazon and other firms are test-marketing this type of store in a few selected locations.  One techie type quoted in the article says his purchase of a Coke Zero in a minute and five seconds at a Go store "was just a phenomenal experience."  If you have the type of mindset that divides life into things you want to do and things you have to do, and you're unequivocally in favor of the more time for the former and less time for the latter, then a cashier-less store is right down your alley, of course. 

On the same day I read about Go stores, I also read a short story by T. Coraghessan Boyle in the New Yorker.  Called "Asleep at the Wheel," it's a series of vignettes in a future where autonomous cars are nearly universal and robot watchmen patrol the night.  One of the main themes is the love-hate relationship a young woman named Cindy has with her car Carly, who has the personality of a pushy, prudish mother-in-law.  If the car isn't urging her to stop on her way to a lawyer's office to buy a purse she looked at last week, it's locking her out when the car disapproves of a homeless man she's picked up at the local pet shelter.

Silly?  Somewhat.  But Boyle, working with themes reminiscent of stories by the late Kurt Vonnegut, is trying to show us the logical conclusions of several lines that purveyors of new technology are urgently pushing us along.  Retailers are excited about cashierless stores such as Amazon's Go not only because they eliminate wages paid to cashiers.  If you pick up an item, the system can offer you a discount for it on the spot through your phone.  And retailers in brick-and-mortar stores can start to do what online stores have been doing for years:  tracking your every move, noticing what you hesitate in front of and what you may be thinking about buying, so as to increase the chances of your buying it. 

Privacy—remember privacy?—is obviously a concern, but I expect that such stores may eventually have a small sign in fine print posted at the entrance with phraseology like, "By entering this store, you agree to the following terms and conditions. . . . " In other words, abandon all privacy, ye who enter here.  And many people are willing to trade privacy for convenience.

But convenience, like so many other goods, becomes a demon if you turn it into an absolute unqualified supreme that trumps every other value.  Americans in particular are suckers for comfort and convenience.  Our bathroom and plumbing technology led the world into the modern era, for instance.  But much of what meaningful life is about consists of overcoming challenges of one kind or another—that difficult relationship with a relative, that hard problem at work.  None of those kinds of things are convenient, and if you make convenience the ruling principle of your life, you will just skim along the surface, effortlessly using convenience after convenience, but on the way to where?  No place inconvenient, that's for sure.

That's why the Boyle short story packs such a punch.  It's all about the hazards and conflicts caused by an imagined society's embrace of convenience, an embrace that hands over one's schedule and motives to a machine that does things for your own good, but things that you don't always want it to do at the time.  Boyle exaggerates for effect, of course—that's what storytellers do.  But his point isn't simply that these artificial-intelligence technologies are so dangerous we shouldn't go there.  He's no Luddite.  It's that if we allow a society to come about in which we allow convenience alone to dictate the design of major systems we have to use daily, we may come to regret our decision.

It's a bit like a person who has some bad habit—drug addiction, alcoholism, overeating—handing his keys over to a hired servant who has orders to keep his boss away from the addiction.  It's like Lear in Shakespeare's King Lear, who wanted to let go of his cake (kingdom) and still have it around in case he got hungry.  If the servant is really a servant, he'll have to follow orders when the boss tells him to open the liquor cabinet.  But if the boss always does what the servant tells him, the boss is no longer the boss.  He's the underling and the servant's now the boss.

I do not believe that the spread of Go stores and other cashierless retail establishments presages the downfall of civilization.  Thousands of stores already have self-checkout lines, and the Go-store idea is in a way just an extension of that.  But it's a symptom of a desire to make convenience a god, and to fix our impatience problem, not by becoming more patient, but by getting rid of the thing that makes us impatient—checkout lines, in this case. 

No technology I can think of is totally beneficial and without any downsides for anyone.  While cashierless checkout may be the wave of the future, you can expect that it will also lead to trouble of one kind or another.  Or at least less convenience than many of us are hoping for.

Sources:  The article by Michael Liedtke and Joseph Pisani on Amazon Go stores appeared under headlines such as "Retailers are shopping for ways to get rid of checkout lines," in the Boston Herald on Feb. 9, 2019 at and the Austin American-Statesman, where I read it.  T. Coraghessan Boyle's story "Asleep at the Wheel" appeared on pp. 54-61 of the Feb. 11, 2019 issue of the New Yorker. 

Monday, February 04, 2019

Defense Distributed Versus the States: Losing the Battle but Winning the War?

On Wednesday, Jan. 30, a federal judge in Austin threw out a suit filed by the 3D-printed-gun firm Defense Distributed against the attorneys general of Los Angeles, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and for good measure the governors of New York and Pennsylvania as well.  Defense Distributed was trying to get the federal court to overrule state and city laws that prohibit the sale of 3D-printed gun plans.  It's an interesting study in how the much-abused principle of federalism has been turned backwards by a libertarian-style organization to overrule states' rights—unsuccessfully so far, at least on the surface.

First, the backstory.  In 2013, a 25-year-old libertarian and University of Texas law student named Cody Wilson made the news by using a 3D printer to print a working gun.  Not only did he print and fire the thing, but he made sure the news media knew about it.  Not satisfied with just showing it could be done, Wilson forged ahead to found a company called Defense Distributed, which tried to sell plans online so that anybody could print 3D guns out of plastic in the comfort of one's own domicile. 

The U. S. State Department then intervened, saying this was against export regulations, and because the Internet has no borders, Defense Distributed had to take the plans down.  They did so, but sued to get the right to put them back up, and in the summer of 2018, the State Department settled with the company and withdrew its objection.

As soon as the company tried to put the plans up again, here came a gang of attorneys general from twelve states where gun control is popular:  New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, among others.  They sued to stop Defense Distributed, and won an injunction in Federal court to stop them.

In the meantime, Wilson himself was arrested for sexual assault on a minor, and resigned from the company he founded.  But Defense Distributed is still with us, and currently sells inexpensive milling machines that people can use to make guns at home.  Milling machines aren't illegal—not yet, anyway.  And in the meantime, news reports show that private websites have plenty of 3D-gun plans available, and nobody much is going after them to shut them down.

Any time technology advances to a point unanticipated by the legal system, trouble can arise, and that seems to be what's happened here.  When guns were considered so hard to make that no legislator bothered to make home gun manufacturing illegal, it was thought sufficient to regulate the sale and manufacture of firearms by large industrial firms.  The history of how private ownership of guns in the U. S. has evolved to the present day is much too long to summarize here, but a thumbnail sketch of the current debate is as follows. 

On one side there are those who hope for an ideal civilization where nobody but a few idle policemen carry firearms, and maybe not even them.  Everyone is so enlightened that armed conflict is inconceivable, and anyway, even if somebody did want to start a fight, there's no guns around to use, so nobody gets shot—accidentally or otherwise.  These folks see increasing restrictions on private ownership of guns as the right side of history, and view 3D-printed guns as a step backward in our progress toward a gun-free future.

On the other side, you have rugged individualists who believe it's every person's right to defend him- or herself with any means necessary.  And since there are a lot of bad hombres out there, it's your right to own and carry a gun.  If the laws in your locality don't allow you to obtain one legally, then go home, download the plans from Defense Distributed, and make your own. 

I exaggerate on both sides for clarity, but the libertarian position of minimal government clearly comes down on the side of gun ownership and makership.  It's ironic, then, that Defense Distributed finds itself calling on that bete noir of libertarianism, the behemoth called the federal government, to squash the states' rights to suppress gun making at home.  But at least it's consistent with the philosophy behind the firm, which is basically that anybody should be able to have a gun, and if you're competent enough to run a 3D printer, you're competent enough to handle a gun.

A further likely irony is that in a few years, this whole kerfuffle will probably look as outmoded as when record companies went around in the 1980s trying to get a royalty assessed on blank tape and tape recorders, because they were worried about the revenue they were losing when people copied vinyl records instead of buying new ones.  When digital recording came along, and then the Internet, the bomb really went off under the recording industry.  And now such efforts look merely quaint.  YouTube is now on track to harbor every audio and video recording ever made, copyrighted or otherwise, and the idea of stopping them is like trying to convince a stampeding elephant not to trample your daisies.

In other words, the attorneys general may have won this battle, but it looks like in their fight against the spread of digital firearms, they're already losing the war. 

Whether this is a good thing or not depends on which side you favor in the conflict.  Personally, I do not own any firearms and I'm not fond of hunting, but some of the nicest people I know do and are.  As for Defense Distributed, without its colorful leader Wilson and in view of the fact that a lot of what it was trying to sell is online already, its days may be numbered.  But the time when anybody can 3D print a whole lot of things that other folks don't want them to print is coming fast, and we might as well be ready for it when it gets here.

Sources:  The Austin American-Statesman carried the article "Judge rejects lawsuit by 3D-printed gun company Defense Distributed against states" at  I also referred to articles by Vox at
and Wired at  An archival New York Times article about the record companies' efforts to extract royalties from the consumer recording business in 1985 is at  I first blogged about Cody Wilson and his guns on May 13, 2013 at