Monday, 5 August 2013

Review of Monsanto vs The World: Monsanto, GMOs and Our Genetically Modified Future, by Jason Louv

Monsanto vs The World: Monsanto, GMOs and Our Genetically Modified Future, by Jason Louv. Pub. Ultracuture, www.ultraculture.org, ultraculturegate@gmail.com
Book mini site: http://monsanto.ultraculture.org
11,000+ words, $3.02 ebook, $4.49 paperback

This is a cross between a book review and some propaganda for the resistance to Monsanto, which this book is a part of. As such, I shall treat the book as a set of resources for information and action.

It opens with a thorough breakdown of the appallingly corrupt arrangement that President Obama signed into law in March 2013, which can enable the planting of GM crops even against judicial rulings.

Then we are introduced to Monsanto, their history of producing weedkillers and the infamous defoliant weapon Agent Orange. The death statistics, both Vietnamese and American from the latter make grisly reading. Louv mentions the generous campaign donations Monsanto made to a variety of political campaigns.

Louv then introduces genetic modification, focusing on the most controversial kind, transgenic, where genes from widely differing organisms are combined, such as animal or bacterial genes being introduced into plants. Some of the failures of the exalted claims made for transgenics are mentioned.

One of the more sinister aspects of GM crops from the point of view of human health (which, as we shall see, is not the only issue with GMOs) is the introduction of herbicide resistance genes, making crops resistant to herbicides used to kill the weeds around them. This means that more herbicide chemicals will get into the food chain, and into our bodies. Unlike the crop, we won't have the gene to resist the toxin, so we will get toxic effects. There are apparently already reports of this happening, as well as trials which show carcinogenic effects from Monsanto's herbicides.

A possible threat, this time to agriculture and the ecosystem at large, is gene transfer, in which GM genes migrate into other organisms, such as herbicide-resistance genes appearing in weeds which grow in fields of traditionally-produced crops.

Even with apparently benign crops, there are great dangers. Once a farmer has stopped using the seed from last year's harvest and is dependent on some company for the higher-performance seeds he is now using - which will be sterile, so he has to buy them every year - he is in hock for all time. This is of the most worrying aspects of the GMO world. An example is Golden Rice, a GM rice variety engineered to produce large quantities of Vitamin A. Critics 'have suggested that the benefits of Golden Rice are minor compared to the threat posed to farmers who will have to submit to the policies of the seeds' patent holders'

In light of Monsanto's persecution of opponents and investigators (http://www.panna.org/blog/guest-blog-declaring-independence-monsanto-co is just one example) their acquisition of notorious mercenary outfit Blackwater is particularly chilling. As more than one commentator has noted, this is getting like a badly-scripted dystopian SF film.

Louv looks at the toxicity to wildlife of Monsanto's agri-poisons. One issue which has helped bring the entire Monsanto mess into the public eye is their pushing of neonicotinoid insecticides, which overwhelming evidence links to the mass die-offs of bees in recent years. This horrific threat has even raised the ire of Putin's Russia: http://entomologicalphilosopher.com/2013/05/28/russia-warns-obama-monsanto-and-neonicotinoids/

Monsanto's arrogant rapacity is given another creepy post-apocalyptic twist by the announcement that bee-size drones are being developed which may be used as pollinators in place of bees when the latter become extinct. 'Daddy, what happened to the honey bees?' 'We poisoned them, son.'

Louv covers some features of third-world resistance to biotech, including the Indian farmer suicides, and moves on to the 'revolving door' between government and biotech companies. He references the studies showing that GM crops do not produce the promised great yields, and examines the evidence that GMOs could cause direct harm to those eating them.

There is little hard evidence for such harm, but even if GMOs were shown to be completely harmless in themselves that would not vitiate one bit the host of other reasons for subjecting them to much stricter control, not to mention clipping the wings of arrogant companies who care nothing for farmers or the environment.

The book gives advice on avoiding eating GMOs. For a pocket-size list of companies to avoid, check out http://fracturedparadigm.com/2013/04/02/boycott-monsanto-a-simple-list-of-companies-to-avoid/#axzz2b5sWerMs 

Like I said at the beginning, this is not just a book review, and as such I have nothing negative to say about any book that contributes positively to the struggle against the rapists of the ecosystem. I would though respectfully suggest to Mr Louv that he start to offer the ebook version free of charge, so it can fulfil more widely its function as a resource for agitprop. Further, I'd suggest that he treat the book as a continually-evolving document, almost like a wiki, where contributors can help update the information in it by sending in links to news items, protest events and so on, keeping up to date with the latest horrors. That could become a resource for people fighting legal battles against the Monsta.

Hopefully, this little book will have some impact on the appalling ignorance of the US public. Europe and the third world have so far led the world in protest. This just shows the power of American media - the public have been tranquillized by lies. Come on, America wake up and catch up!

Considering the issues from the point of view of what outcome would be best, what we have to remember is that our opponents do have some right on their side. Some aspect of what they are doing is good. So people will recognize that and, even discounting the believe-anything-idiot level of public approval, there are also informed positions of approval of genetic manipulation.

There can be little doubt that GM has some great potentials. This means that people will support it with intelligence and passion. Which means we have to consider what we are working towards here, not just shoot from the hip on the basis of revulsion at Monsanto's rapacious, irresponsible behaviour.

For example, let's take a look at the best-known use of a transgenic organism - the production of human insulin. Before GM, diabetics had to use pig insulin, with all the problems that injecting a protein from another mammal can cause. Then the present system was devised, in which human insulin genes are snipped out from the human genome and transplanted into the bacterium E. coli. This bacterial-human combination produces perfectly good 'human' insulin. Would anyone want to go back to the bad old days of pig insulin?

Of course, adding a human gene to a bacterium which is going to be kept in a fermenting flask all its life is not the same as producing a transgenic plant which will then be sown out in the world, for the ecosystem to take its chances with. Therefore any problems with transgenicity are a matter of context, not the fundamentals of the technology itself.

The problem then comes down to the behaviour of biotech companies. Extreme secrecy and aggressive sneakiness, let alone the acquisition of private armies, argues that they are up to no good, on a very large scale. They need drastically restricting, and it does seem that our elected governments cannot be relied upon to do that job, if we look at how easily Obama signed away the rights of the American public.

On the other hand, a government powerful enough to bring them down right now would be a very scary organism.

We have to rely on overwhelming public opposition, prolonged and trenchant. Total, unbending insistence by the vast majority of the population might just give weak and nominally-democratic governments like USA the balls to bring GM under strict, publicly-accountable control.

What models do we have for this level of public outrage? What kind of baseline attitude might give the public a chance of forcing their governments to instigate proper controls? I think we are looking at an attitude of disgust, the sort of utter, visceral loathing that most people reserve for death camps. That emotion will probably quite naturally follow continued exposure of the behaviour of rogue biotech firms. That might just give us a chance of living in a world where most of the global food supply is neither contaminated nor owned by 2 or 3 companies, a world where bees still exist, a world where farmers can save their own seed for next year. A world where the ecosystem has a future.

No!Monsta! : Say NO! to the Monsta!

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Review of a pointless film

The Wicker Tree

I've just seen a film so crap my companion and I just ended up laughing at it. So I thought it was worth reviewing on that basis. And to warn off any fans of the genuine article.

The reason I got this film was because it's supposed to be a sequel to 'The Wicker Man'. I am of course referring to the original 1973 film, not the American remake, which I have vowed never to see, because it can only be a cheap and tawdry imitation of a truly great film. So I felt like I had to watch this, even though it was, apparently, widely rated as rubbish.

And, make no mistake, the nay-sayers were right - it is a steaming pile of cack.

The laird in this film runs a nuclear power station. He is descended from Lord Summerisle, but that's the nearest this film gets to having any Wicker Man DNA in it. His poorly-managed nuclear site has rendered the village sterile, and sacrifices are conducted to restore fertility. The stupid villagers, instead of lynching this creep, take part in elaborate rituals in which two American missionaries are captured. The young man is fucked then eaten and the young woman feted as May Queen then stuffed and mounted. There is more than one mention of Celtic religion, so this film can be taken as an egregious and pathetic insult to the latter.

The depiction of living heathenism is sloppy and half-hearted. This is a film that doesn't know what it wants to be. Unlike in the original WM, where the horror is not the point, in this film it almost is, except there's really no point at all. The village conspiracy seems to be modelled on the excellent Hot Fuzz, and there is an element of schlocky absurdity which shows the influence of the OTT-to-the-point-of-silly element in modern horror films since Evil Dead. In other words, it could have made a reasonable OTT comedy, but its nerve fails on the couple of occasions when it gets near that edge. Like a mildly hilarious moment involving a dead cat, and a super-tacky virtuoso performance of the 50s christo-schmaltz hit song 'Deck of Cards'.

Oh yes, the music. The original WM is a feast of beguiling traditional and neo-traditional folk that holds together a depiction of another world. It is a truly astonishing use of music which succeeds in creating a different reality. The Wicker Tree? The music is mostly rubbish, and they obviously didn't spend much on it.

They didn't even bother thinking the plot through. At the end we realise that the seed of the captured missionary has succeeded in impregnating the woman who seduced him. So it was only the men who were sterile. Wow, the women could have avoided the considerable trouble of capturing and killing a couple of good looking missionaries and instead simply had a night out at a club in a neighbouring town. Then gone home and lynched the self-confessed Mr Burns character.Yes, he actually compares himself to that archetype of banal evil. Give me strength.


Thursday, 2 May 2013

Review of The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, by Ian Sales.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Universe-Beholds-Itself-Quartet-ebook/dp/B00B2KI5QI
Book 2 of Sales's Apollo Quartet.

In another parallel universe, the space programme kept going. Via the chance discovery of an alien artefact on Mars, mankind is given the key to interstellar travel. A colony is set up on an exo-planet named Earth Two.

Elliott is a veteran spaceman, the only human ever to have gone to Mars and to have seen the alien disc in place. He is selected, via a labyrinth of government secrecy, to join a mission to Earth Two when the colony has a serious problem.

We are still in the same world as the first book, Adrift in the Sea of Rains (see my review at http://chaotopia-dave.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/review-of-adrift-on-sea-of-rains-by-ian.html ), and indeed still in the same time-frame. But a secret has been kept: only one man has ever seen the only known evidence of alien life.

From the opening lines, Sales sets up the protagonist's driving motivations. He is leaving a loving wife for... what?:
'This time, when he returns home he knows she will have left him for good.'

This is a man to whom space exploration is the be-all of his life. And maybe the end-all too:
'There is nowhere else he would rather be.
'He has missed this-the freedom of freefall, the sense of purpose that comes from following mission checklists, the purpose that comes from following mission checklists, the constant marvel of human engineering, the desperate desire to find a place for humanity in an implacable and indifferent universe.'

The Eye of the title is of course humankind; but is it humankind alone? That is what Elliott would know.

The narrative runs a present-time journey to Earth Two, in parallel with flashbacks to Elliott's original Mars mission. The alien-physics-derived Serpo engine is run from a Rock, a near-Earth asteroid towed to the Lagrange point between Earth and Moon. The world on that Rock is what Sales really excels at, the descriptions of humans functioning in deep space. I don't think I've read any other fiction that comes near in this respect.

The style generated by the mix of effective space exploration with what reads like 1970s tech is almost a 70s version of Steampunk: these are people doing amazing things with old-fashioned, clunky technology.

This technological mix is then juxtaposed with the alien tech. In the first book we had the Bell, weird salvaged Nazi technology. In this one, we have the Serpo engine. This is perhaps less outré than the parallel-universe-spanning Bell, but the story is by no means less exciting. I enjoyed Adrift..., but I prefer this volume.

Small complaints department: There's something odd about the font sizing in the Kindle edition - the characters are at least two sizes smaller than those on 'Adrift on the Sea of Rains', and every other Kindle file I have.
(There's also a typo - 'vaccum'; I know, the process of proofreading self-published books never ends.)

This book really works. Buy it for the same reasons I recommended Adrift..., only more so.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Kurt Schwitters in Britain

Exhibition at Tate Britain, till 12th May. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/schwitters-britain





I've always liked collages, the usage of ephemera and trash as elements of new compositions. Schwitters' is one of the names associated with this art from the beginning. So that was all I knew about this man's art. And there is more to it, much more, as this exhibition demonstrates.

First, a few notes on the early collages.

Corrugated cardboard that forms staircases, pitted wood becomes distant vague rooms, suggesting murky future places; so much is happening with w such humble materials. Tram tickets, newspaper scraps picked up in the street, removed from the context of the pavement, become tiny intimate windows. An eye gazes out of faded newsprint. Chocolate wrappers, numbers which have lost their meaning, disposable items; the mind is making sense of modern life's profligacy in terms of their form the dreams they trigger, so they become tickets to other mental places.

Proto-psychedelia, hallucinations in ephemera. A copper coin in a picture becomes the head of a person stooping to look at another picture.

In 1937 the Nazis used Schwitters' art as an example of Degenerate Art. What praise, from such Untermenschen. Nothing like militant morons to give you new perspectives. On a not unrelated theme, see - 'Untitled ( opened by customs)'.

Then abstract seascapes. Storm. A foil cap casts a solid shadow. A flower appears out of broken green glass.

Schwitters' concept of Merz - derived from the German word Kommerz - extends the collage principle into more dimensions. This art does fine in an internment camp, his home in Britain for a while. Merz plays with the stupidity of consumerism. This art has rough edges; it is not slick; it is anti-consumerist, therefore immensely relevant now as the delusions of plenty we've been brought up on shift down a gear. Merz is potentially magical art.

Then there is his (in)famous sound piece - Ursonate. One version of this can be found at http://vimeo.com/23275942

And finally... the sublime Merzbarn. Indescribable. Go to this, there are a couple of weeks left. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Review of Albion Dreaming: A popular history of LSD in Britain, by Andy Roberts

Like most bibliophiles, I have a massive pile of books to read, some of which richly deserve  reviewing. I might just be catching up...

This review seemed historically appropriate, since the 70th anniversary of the first ever LSD trip happened just the other day.

Albion Dreaming: A popular history of LSD in Britain, by Andy Roberts
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Albion-Dreaming-popular-history-Britain/dp/1905736274

I met Andy Roberts at the Breaking Convention conference in 2011, where I was delivering a talk on psychedelics in magic. He thrust this book into my hands, and I'm glad he did.

A number of worthwhile books have been written about the US experience of LSD; Roberts's goal for the book is to give a British perspective on the rise of acid. From the blurb: ''Albion Dreaming' traces the drug's complex history from its arrival in Britain during 1952 through its use in psychotherapy, the secret military experiments at Porton Down and the British hippie movement's extensive use of the powerful chemical.'

The American military uses have been well covered; Roberts recounts tales of British soldiers "hallucinating for Queen and country" in early Porton Down experiments. The psychotherapy phase of LSD is dealt with in depth, tracing the history of doctors and medical centres where the drug was prescribed. My late auntie, a wonderful woman who suffered from a disabling level of asthma all her life, was treated (unsuccessfully) with acid some time in the 50s; Roberts follows up a fair few experimental treatments for illnesses no-one would associate with psychedelic therapy these days.

The biggest base of usage was of course the 'counter-culture' of the 60s-70s. This is dealt with in a balanced way, neither attempting to hide the disasters nor downplaying the positive effects LSD had on vast numbers of people. On page 92 he writes:

'To the early LSD users the new drug signified unconditional love for other human beings and for planet Earth. It was this possibility of personal and planetary salvation that initially drove the LSD culture and which led eventually to its users becoming involved in a wide variety of transpersonal and ecological belief systems.'

That belief system of unconditional love for other people is of course one of the traps of psychedelic consciousness; no-one can sustain such a state for long, and attempts to do so sometimes broke people. The degradation of that idealism into self-destructiveness is clearly seen in some of the documents of that era. I shall eventually get round to reviewing a particularly poignant example, the novel 'Be Not Content' by William Craddock, re-released by novelist Rudy Rucker.
http://www.rudyrucker.com/blog/2012/05/13/william-craddocks-be-not-content-now-out-as-ebook/

By the early 70s I'm sharing some of the memories. The 1971 Glastonbury Fair, summed up by Mick Farren: 'We might as well have been in the sixth or even twenty-sixth century as we told tall travellers' tales of intoxication, of outwitting the law, of lights in the sky, lost continents, the lies of government collective triumphs and personal stupidity, while the music of past, present and future roared from the pyramid stage.'

Another great anecdote concerns Inspector Lee (no, not William Burroughs' alter ego, but the one of the main cops in the Operation Julie squad!), who, after the bust, went to visit psychedelic psychiatrist Ronnie Laing and campaigner Steve Abrams. 'A bizarre night of heavy drinking ensued... Lee allegedly handed in his resignation the same day.'

Roberts's attitude to LSD is one of near-incredulity at the nonsense that has been written about it:
'The idea of LSD had grown out of all proportion to the substance itself and had, for the majority of society, become a demon, a barbarian at the doors of everyday consciousness and normality. ... How the British establishment has dealt with LSD is a prima facie example of a society's inability to deal intelligently and consistently with consciousness-changing drugs.'

Coming up to (near) the present day, Roberts discusses the reports on drug harm commissioned by the government from the Medical Research Council and top experts in the field, and the flagrant disregard for fact shown by successive governments. 'If fact and experience are to be ignored over ignorance and prejudice then society will continue to reap the dubious rewards of a disenfranchised youth who know from their own experience that, if used carefully, most drugs are not particularly dangerous.'

Yes, humankind is a stoned animal, absolutely no doubt about that. Most cultures in the past have dealt with these powerful substances by socializing them. There is something particularly hysterical and brittle in our mainstream culture that seems to make that impossible. Brittle, like the world is going to break if people stop believing the dominant nonsense. Can we give this hysteria a name? How about 'conditioned fear'? You know who you are, Daily Mail feature writers.

Finally, if anyone should harbour any doubts as to Andy Roberts's depth of research, let it be known that he quotes personal emails from Owsley. Enough said.

For a much longer review, check out http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jul/25/albion-dreaming-andy-roberts-review

Monday, 8 April 2013

Review of a novel, Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest by Jim Crace. http://www.jim-crace.com/

I got this book (from my local library, blessings be upon the remains of that fine service!) because the review promised a vivid depiction of life in a poor village on the cusp of the Enclosures. In the early modern era, fields which had been granted in common under ancient rights to graze were stolen by the wealthy to farm sheep, and this background runs under everything happening in this novel.

This will no doubt sound familiar to the modern reader, but Harvest is not an overtly political tale. The protagonist Walter tells of the final seven days in the life of the village. Starting with a mushroom-intoxicated prank that goes wrong, and the arrival of three strangers who raise a rough dwelling and light a fire before dawn, thereby making use of ancient squatters' rights, we see the social fabric of the village come apart.

The writing is excellent in the way it shows the tensions between the law and the feelings of the villagers. And the sheer richness of the sensory environment has been called, with good reason, hallucinatory. The details are astonishing to a modern person; have you any idea how the design of a plough works, or how it feels to use one? I didn't either.

Highly recommended for those who want to know what life used to be like. Who want to know a lost and vanished world.

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Lost Delights of Hitchhiking

I saw a poster the other day advertising hitchhiking. It was in Leeds University, where I was spending a day for the Viking Society Student conference. It was the first reference I've seen to hitching in many a year.

Hitching was one of the mainstays of my life for years. It got me around the UK, and to a lesser extent, France. It enabled me to have a lifestyle split between three cities for a few years. One of my best hitches was from Sheffield in Yorkshire to Redruth in Cornwall in seven hours. Admittedly, I didn't do that all on my own; my companion was my girlfriend, who sported beautiful, long red hair.

Sometimes, people went out of their way to give me a better lift, miles out of their way. Other times, magic happened. The first time I went to Oxford was on impulse, to visit a friend who'd recently moved there, whose address I didn't even possess, though I did know the name of the road. The final lift actually dropped me off on that road. I knocked on a door on a hunch; a woman answered and told me I was probably looking for the people across the road. It was indeed my friend's house.

Sometimes it got a little dangerous. On one occasion, our driver slammed on the brakes in the third lane of the motorway, apropos nothing we could see. 'Oops,' he said. 'I thought I saw something...' The rest of his statement was a mumble out of which we picked the words 'liquid lunch.' We then realised what the smell in the car was: seemingly, his hallucinogen of choice was gin.

Then there were the two lads who picked my friend and me up under a bridge by the M4, about 4 a.m. 'Where are you going?'
'Cardiff.' They looked at each other and said 'Why not? We'll take you there.'
It gradually dawned on us that this was a joyride, the car and the journey both taken on a whim. The Top Ten hit 'Young, Gifted and Black' played on the radio. The lads sang along to it, with the words 'Young, gifted and white.' They took us to Cardiff.

One occasion taught me about the physiology of freezing. A winter nighttime lift from Watford Gap was from a physiologist who was an expert in lethal hypothermia.

Another provided some rare entertainment, the kind you can't get otherwise. Waiting in the snow outside Southampton, I was picked up in a station wagon. I was carrying a rucksack, and the driver invited me to drop it in the back, on top of a long parcel wrapped in blankets. As we got underway, it turned out that the driver worked for an undertaker's firm. He had just driven back from France, and the bundle in the back was the corpse of an English client returning home. I asked him if it was OK that my rucksack was on top of the body. 'No problem,' he said. 'It's not going to bother him.'

I was heading for Leeds. He was going to turn off the M1 onto the M18, which would have been no use to me, so I was expecting to be dropped off at Woodall Service Station on the M1, before he turned off. He went one better and got on his CB rig. Remember Citizen Band Radio, and its brief few years of popularity? Anyway, he got me a lift, from Woodall to Leeds. I wish I could remember his 'handle'.

My new driver was a woman, who said she would never have picked anyone up off the roadside - the fact that contact had been made by CB made her feel much more secure about giving me a lift. 

All of those years of hitching, I often thought how I'd like to give something back, once I started driving. But there have been so few opportunities in the last couple of decades. Hitch hiking has gone out of fashion. I've given almost no lifts in the 20+ years I've been driving. You just don't see the small queues of hopefuls at the exit road of every motorway service station, or major slip road. 

Why? How did this happen? Maybe it was media reports of evil psycho-drivers/hitchers. Maybe it was the 'fuck-you-I'm-all-right' culture of the Thatcher years that leached the last natural generosity out of the British. Maybe it was a whole slew of factors. But it has definitely gone out of fashion, and I think we've lost something. The low cost, the adventure, the many-sided environmental soundness, the positive cultural impact of  intelligently sharing resources.

That last example, the lift I gained through a driver's CV communication, gave me hope for a future style of hitching, where passenger met driver through modern media. The internet is the obvious heir to that kind of one-to-one contact, and should be much better as a medium for doing it.

So how many people get lifts via online networks? I tried http://www.hitchhikers.org/    for a list of rides over the next month, free rides like back in the day, just inside UK. The number that came up: 0. So I tried UK-France. 0. Maybe I'm not being adventurous enough; UK-Romania: 0. The same for the next 6 countries. So I removed the free-ride stipulation and tried again: same. Not impressive.

http://hitchwiki.org/ is a multilingual site with a lot of info about hitchhiking events worldwide and an activist attitude. It's got a lot of articles. But I couldn't find any way to arrange lifts - maybe they're inside members' forums and chat rooms.         

http://yoursafeplanet.co.uk/ looks more promising, but it was closed for repairs. 

Smartphones seem like the obvious basis for flexible travel communications. http://www.avego.com/ offer an app for Android phones, so GPS helps you find a lift. This of course is only as worthwhile as the number of subscribers it has, but it's the kind of thing that offers hope. If enough people take this kind of thing up, it could offer something which has many of the good qualities of the old style hitchhiking but with more safety, and maybe more predictability.

That's a big 'if' though. Seems like there's some way to go before getting a lift is as common as it used to be, before it's a part of the culture again.