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the column of lasting insignificance: May 2, 2014
by John Wilcock

“The modern Republican party supposedly suffers from ideological confusion (but its) seemingly disparate platforms actually display a coherent unity: the American Right is committed to preserving all hierarchy and imposed order: men over women, white over black, rich over poor, bosses over workers, Christian majorities over Muslim minorities…love of hierarchy, of entrenched power
—Review in The Washington Spectator of The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right by Lee Fang

FOODIES LOVE QUINOA but the snooty reputation it has achieved in some circles has made it something of a joke for the rest of us. So Harper’s seven-page tribute might come as a surprise: “If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things—the answer is quinoa” says Danish agronomist Sven-Erik Jacobsen. “There’s no doubt about it.” So why isn’t this magic seed on every shopping list, topping every menu? Well, the answer is that quinoa is not all that available. In the past it was mainly grown only above 12,000 feet on the rocky slopes of the Altiplano which stretches from Peru to Argentina. The plant doesn’t easily flourish in other conditions, even those that might seem more hospitable. To grow outside the Altiplano it must be adapted, its genes altered. However, last month Dubai announced it has successfully produced a crop, for human and animals.

Quinoa Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

    And numerous plant breeders are working on adaptations, their task somewhat handicapped by the fact that most of the worldwide supply is in Bolivia, whose official policy is for that country not to share the seeds. “It's all about food sovereignty” says one farmer, about preserving the country’s identity and self-reliance. (Potatoes originated in Bolivia and look what happened to them). There’s enough quinoa germplasm on the loose for experimentation but not enough yet for companies like Monsanto to invest, or for General Mills who seeks to turn it into a breakfast cereal. And one of the problems is that the elevation of the grain’s source has kept it free of insects and diseases prevalent at lower attitudes. A different crop has to be immunized against that with gene therapy.

SILENCE IN RESTAURANTS, much less in malls and elevators, is a thing of the past so distant that it’s doubtful if anybody alive remembers what it was like. But not so long ago at least there was Muzak, the kind of mood music that offered an inoffensive background to all the other noises. “The notion that silence, or ambient noise, is somehow discomforting seems to be a peculiarly American conceit” writes Philip Terzian in the weekly Standard. “But the nature of the product has changed (when) I noticed that Muzak was unlike any I had heard before. Instead of sleepy woodwinds and monotonous strings, from out of the ceiling came the voice of Beyoncé. She sounded, of course, as if she had stuck her fingers in an electric socket; but the point is that the sound was Beyoncé herself…and with that, or so it seemed, the sound of Muzak was transformed”.

CHELSEA CLINTON, “product of two of the most powerful brands in the world”, as Fast Company describes her, dominates the May cover of the magazine, accompanying a story which says that for years the world has been wondering what she would do some day. The answer: after trying out international relations, management consulting, Wall Street, and television reporting, this “political royalty” has decided to join the Clinton family business. As vice chair of the recently rebranded Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Chelsea Clinton Clinton Foundation, the mag says, she is helping one of the world’s most notable philanthropies grow up. “I was curious if I could care about money on some fundamental level” Chelsea says, “and I couldn’t. That wasn’t the metric of success that I wanted in my life”. From all accounts she has chosen well, bringing order to an organization that is not actually a foundation but a charity with nine separate “initiatives” (global warming, food & health care, Haiti, are but three), all held together by the Clinton Global Initiative with 2,000 employees in 36 countries. “So the onus on Chelsea” says FC, “is to shift the foundation from a star-powered charity into a sophisticated, data-driven sustainable organization that can thrive for decades to come (and)…she displays all the earmarks of a natural leader: command of the subject matter, passion that feels authentic, and off-the-cuff comments spliced in with academic favorites such as gestalt and milieu. Politics is inextricably in the fabric of her being, in her bloodline, and her breeding. “Says Burberry CEO Christopher Bailey, a close friend: “I could see her running for Congress in New York in 10 years... She’s really smart and savvy. Nothing will hold her back”.

JUNK SCIENCE is becoming hard to distinguish from genuine research, claims Popular Science, listing as an example an over-the-top claim that fallout from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident had caused thousands of American deaths. Even at Fukushima itself no one died from acute exposure was the mag’s rebuttal, quoting the University of Maryland’s Mark Hoofnagle’s explanation that people who produce junk science often come from outside the scientific mainstream who bend the rules of research in an attempt to legitimize their personal beliefs. The University of Maryland professor runs a science-monitoring blog Denialism.com. Much of this phony information comes from new web-publishing platforms—open-access journals—that publish papers indiscriminately, charging authors instead of readers. “There’s an inherent conflict of interest” says librarian Jeffrey Beale who maintains a collection of such publications at the University of Denver. “The more papers they accept, the more money they make”. Sometimes the after-effects are dangerous, the best-known case being the erroneous report back in 2004 alleging a link between vaccines and autism. The study was discredited some years later when it was shown the researcher had falsified data, but the legacy lived on causing a recurrence in cases of measles (which had been previously wiped out) as well as diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. The Centers for Disease Control attributes the increase to parents who now refuse to have their children vaccinated.

OFFERING A NEW TWIST on tourism, the Northern England city of York has produced a Smell York book which provides fragrances of some of such local iconic venues as gardens of lavender blossoms, the scent of “fresh wild heather” from the nearby moors, afternoon tea (“the appetizing aromas of loose teas, spices and cakes”), the racecourse (“horse hair, hoof oil, grass, fruit punch”), railway heritage (“an infusion of coal, steam engine oil, and iron), and the city’s chocolate heritage (both Rowntrees and Terry’s began in York in the 19th century). York’s tourist chief, Kate McMullen, says: “Countless scientific studies prove that the human sense of smell is one of the key facets in forming strong memories”.

THE WILCOCK WEB: The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation which is trying to stop obsolete post offices from closing down would gain validity if it helped to persuade Congress to allow USPS more autonomy. Many foreign post offices run profit-making, mini-banking systems, why not the U.S.?..…..Billion-dollar pipelines crossing the country will eventually, inevitably, be carrying not oil but just-as-valuable water….Jail snitches who claim to hear their cellmates admit to murder may have sent many an innocent man to death row, and a current ‘informant’ in California admits he lied in many of the nine cases in which he gave ‘evidence’ …...Studying why codfish don’t freeze in the Arctic’s icy waters, researchers at the University of Warwick realized that adding polyvinyl alcohol to human blood for storage would provide similar results…. Airbnb, currently under legal scrutiny, makes millions but when I began The Travelers’ Directory 50 years ago (now it’s The Hospitality Exchange) members throughout the world stayed with each other for free…..Sensible travelers will be giving a wide berth to Georgia where Republicans have just passed a law allowing guns in bars and churches…. Same political orientation, of course, shared by that nutty Nevada rancher who says he’s not bound by Federal laws….“Fools give you reasons” wrote Oscar Hammerstein, “wise men never try”….. While underpaid professors and lecturers have had to settle for a 1% pay increase, vice chancellors of several British universities have found their salaries zooming above $500,000, complains the Times, money that is being swallowed up “by a clique of self-aggrandizing administrators”….Well worth a celebratory toast is the news that an Atlanta nitwit who spent $91,400 for a bottle of wine has just been told it’s a fake…..It’s the rich against the rest…A New York ‘community leader’ pleaded guilty to looting millions from social service organizations because apparently his $400,000 annual salary wasn’t enough….The Week reports the arrest of a 42-year-old man in Philadelphia for offering women money to watch him put cheese on his genitals…. Engineering students at Britain’s Royal College of Art have come up with a pen whose electrically conductive ink can draw a working circuit between battery and object…. “All murderers are punished”, mused Voltaire, “unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets”……“Speaking of the death penalty” says Will Durst, “There’s tons of ways to end a miscreant’s life that would be a barrel of fun to watch and still insure justice gets done. For instance, imagine the merriment to be shared if a convicted man were forced to spend an entire evening in the company of Joan Rivers. Death would not only be instantaneous, it would be hilarious”. ….“Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government”.—Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)


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