Corny Considerations

photo of a corn man sculpture in claySeems that corn, in one form or another, is a dominant subject in much of the news these days.   Between the very justified villainization of high-fructose corn syrup that’s infiltrating nearly every otherwise healthful food product to the demand for corn-based biofuel causing a rise in the cost of meats to stories about how corn crops are edging out other crops, corn is making headlines.

With that in mind, several themes that revolve around this common topic – corn – have been swirling around in my brain lately…

Are We Children of the Corn?

I’ve just begun reading Michael Pollan’s
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals in which he traces, step by step, the journey our food takes from the soil to the plate.   I’m not far into the book and already it’s some very thought-provoking stuff.   Pollan contends that we are indeed what we eat — and what we eat remakes the world.   And what we eat, by and large, is corn:

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak.   Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn.   The eggs are made of corn.   The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

Pollan goes to to make the corn connection to a vast array of many of the other foods we purchase & consume – 1 in every 4 items for sale in the average American supermarket contains corn.   A staggering number of even the non-consumable items in your local stores are derivatives of Zea mays, the giant tropical grass we know as corn.   In fact, the Ontario Corn Producers Association insists that there are A Zillion Uses for Corn!   Given how most of the corn grown in this country is processed into unrecognizable bits & pieces, you may never look at a cornfield – or the food in your shopping cart – the same way again…

The Bitter Taste of Corn Sweeteners

In 2006 alone, more than 700 million bushels of corn were refined into corn sweeteners – primarily High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).   Read the labels on beverages & foods and you’ll find HFCS has insidiously wormed its way into all kinds of foods you might never suspect – lunch meats, whole-wheat breads, crackers, salad dressings, soups, cheese, milk, yogurt, vitamins, and even medicines.   Perhaps worse yet, many of the foods laced with this nasty stuff are promoted as being suitable for a healthy lifestyle or weight loss!

Despite the considerable processing required to create HFCS, it’s considerably cheaper, easier to transport, and much sweeter than sugar.   In part, this is because our government artificially fixes sugar prices while heavily subsidizing corn.   But the net result is that this translates into lower costs and higher profits for food producers, so there’ a tremendous economics incentive for them to use corn-based sweeteners.   Since HFCS comes from corn, products that feature it can be billed as "natural" foods but this couldn’t be further from the truth.   In fact, the process of breaking down cornstarch into syrup requires 3 different enzymes – the first of which, alpha-amylase, is industrially produced by a bacterium.

Studies have linked a number of health issues with the use of HFCS.   Some suggest that HFCS may alter intracellular metabolism, which in turn facilitates accelerated aging through oxidative damage.   There’s also connections with HFCS contributing to obesity & diabetes.   So why are these health risks tolerated and the use of HFCS continuing to escalate?   Consumer apathy.   There are simply too few people thinking about the ingredients or nutritional value of the foods they ingest.   We’ve got to let our dollars do the talking – if enough consumers stop buying foods made with corn sweeteners, the producers will have little choice but to abandon the use of HFCS.

Biofuel Causing Corn Shortages?

Not enough that we use innumerable amounts of corn to fuel our bodies, we’ve now been snookered into using it to fuel our cars too.   But the use of corn-based biofuel seems to be coming at the expense of corn as a food crop.

I recently read about a surprising situation in David Bollier’s article on the Mexican corn crisis and although it isn’t quite the same, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

Like Ireland’s potato, corn is a food that defines Mexico.   There’s evidence that corn was domesticated in central Mexico more than 7000 years ago and as early as 1500 BC, corn was a primary staple food for most South American and much of the North American cultures.   Corn, in the form of tortillas, is a critical mainstay of their diet & culture but tortilla prices have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of Mexico since last summer.   Why?   Biofuel.

Now it’s true that yellow corn earmarked (rimshot!) for fuel production is not the same variety used for food, but with the increased demand for biofuels, the corn destined for ethanol is fetching a significantly higher price.   So farmers in Mexico are enticed to grow that crop instead of corn for human and/or livestock consumption and instead import cheaper, food-grade white corn from us to offset.   Farmers here in the U.S. are failling prey to similar economic pressures.   Sounds simple, no?   It gets worse…

Not much more than a year ago, Mexico was exporting more than 137,000 tons of its annual corn crop.   Yet at the same time, Mexico is facing a corn shortage and is set to import more than 800,000 tons of corn for its people from the U.S. & other countries.   The price of tortillas has risen so dramatically that Mexicans have taken to mass protests in the streets.

Now it gets really interesting — statistically, the U.S. grew 42% of the world’s total corn crop last year but ethanol production is projected to consume half of our annual corn harvest by 2008.   So, the demand for biofuels is about to chew up 20% of the world’s corn harvest.

Despite the fact that there are other, potentially far more efficient non-food crop sources that can produce ethanol, the push for corn-based biofuel continues.   And this is accompanied by a score of problems:   it requires vast amounts of energy (including fossil fuel) & water to produce, it does nothing to encourage us to reduce our use of fossil fuel, it burns less efficiently than straight gasoline, & overall doesn’t have a net effect of reducing global-warming-causing pollution.   And since corn is heavily subsidized by the government, as the demand for corn-based ethanol to run our cars increases, so too do our taxes — those government subsidies have to come from somewhere, right?

Although I haven’t seen anything documenting this, it’s a safe bet that corn-based biofuel benefits "Big Oil" significantly.   It’s probably also a safe bet that those companies are already snapping up the farms that grow corn.   Once again, seems like a win-win scenario for "Big Oil."

Anybody else find this whole thing frustrating and/or "cornfusing?"
 

How Did Shopping Become a Holiday?

tax-free graphicThe new school year is just around the corner and along with it comes the much-anticipated 2007 back-to-school sales tax holiday.   On the specified days, you’ll be able to purchase children’s clothing, shoes, & certain other merchandise (of less than a $100 value) tax-free.   You can view the tax-free holiday dates for most states on the Raising 4 Boys website.   If you’re in Texas, you can follow this link to view a list of selected items and their exemption status (either tax-free or taxed) that will be in effect on the weekend of August 17-19th.   Now I’m all for having another holiday (especially if I get the day off) but is this occasion really a "holiday" or is it more of a scam?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a holiday is defined as:

A day free from work that one may spend at leisure, especially a day on which custom or the law dictates a halting of general business activity to commemorate or celebrate a particular event.

Sales tax holidays are a temporary suspension of state & local sales taxes charged on certain items that are quickly becoming a huge annual event in many states — perhaps even rivalling that other notorious shopping holiday: Black Friday.   I applaud anyone savvy enough to make the most of this slight savings that this opportunity (potentially) offers, but is this really worthy of being deemed a "holiday?"   And I’m more than a little suspicious of the motives behind this annual outpouring of generiousity.

For starters, it should come as no great surprise that the biggest fan of these tax-free holidays is the retail industry — this feeding frenzy gives businesses a sorely needed influx of income to stave off the pre-Christmas sales slump.   Some retailers that normally might reduce prices during the back-to-school season hold off on doing so and, in some rare cases, may actually increase prices on key items.

Secondly, these tax-free bonanzas steamroll consumers into purchases that retailers want them to make.   For example, you might have every intent to equip your child with a nifty messenger-style bag, but because that type of bag is exempt from the tax-free incentive, you’re subtly steered towards a backpack instead.   This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just so long as you’re aware of the manipulation tactics being used on you.

So, is Uncle Sam looking out for our interests, seeking to help us poor consumers stretch our meager earnings?   Or is it more likely that we’re being ever-so-slyly pushed to shop, shop, shop until we drop — into the poorhouse?   Is this just a scheme to herd us like cattle into the stores where we’ll graze needlessly on goods that we might not have otherwise splurged on without the artificial incentive?

Whatever the case, how will you be spending the tax-free holiday?
 

Postful Goes Postal

Postful logoI was recently invited to join the beta test for Postful, a service whose concept is so simple you might wonder why it hasn’t already been done — email you send to Postful is printed, stuffed into an envelope, stamped, and mailed to a physical address.   What’s the point?   While anyone reading this blog undoubtedly has an email address (or several), we all still have family & friends who, for one reason or another, don’t have email yet.   Postful hopes to help bridge this digital divide…

So, for 99¢, you can fire off an email (plain text, with attached photos, or even a multi-page PDF document) and it’ll arrive as a glossy, full-color, physical letter in Grandma’s mailbox.

Perhaps most interesting (and ironic) is that, while the Internet has nearly rendered the U.S.P.S. irrelevant, it is simultaneously playing a small part in keeping snail mail propped up on life support.

I see some distinct advantages to this, but Dede doesn’t believe there’s much use or need for such a service.   So, do you think it’s just wishful thinking, or will Postful actually be useful?

Spiderman 3

Spiderman 3

We finally went to see Spiderman 3 today and it was awesome!   I think it is my favorite Spiderman so far (Rob still likes 2 the best) but this one just had it all for me:   A great story line with the continuation of the Peter / M.J. relationship along with 4 villians — and another one of those sexy upside-down kisses!

We’ve become so spoiled from watching movies at home that we rarely go to the theater anymore.   It takes a movie like this – one that has to be experienced on a large screen – to entice us to go.   As soon as we arrived, we were reminded of the downside of movie theaters.

First, there’s the line to get tickets.   Next, there’s the line at the snackbar (we gave up on that line since there was no way we were going to get through it before the movie started).   After the movie began, the cell phone issues began.   One behind us started ringing and the guy let it ring a few times and then answered it and then finally got up and walked out of the theater – still talking as he went down the aisle.   A couple of rows in front of us was some guy who was too busy text messaging to be bothered with watching the movie.   Naturally, every time he received or sent a text message, the cell phone screen lit up like a torch, which was really annoying.

I mean, c’mon, I realize people need their cell phones for emergencies but can’t they a least break free of them during a movie or, better yet, just stay at home to be entertained by their gadgets instead of annoying others who’ve paid for movie entertainment at the theatre?

Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now and get back to the point of this post…   If you haven’t seen Spiderman 3 yet, I highly recommend it!   Next on our Summer movie list is probably Shrek 3.

Portable Power Pains

car with power cordsCars are transit, sure.   But increasingly, with all of our cell phones, notebook PCs, MP3 players, & other electronics gear, they’re also serving as mobile office & entertainment hubs.   Given that, why are we still stuck with these lousy 12-volt power ports (formally, ANSI/SAE J563) in our cars?

The Toyota Matrix (a.k.a. Pontiac Vibe) has had on-board standard 115V power outlets for several years.   Mercury Hybrid Mariner, Volkswagen Touareg, & Honda Odyssey van all have AC outlets now.   So it’s high time the other automakers get on-board with this idea.   As our dependance upon gadgets & mobility continues to exponentially increase, automakers should be adapting to meet these new needs by making power outlets a standard on all cars.   Considering that you can buy a top-notch power inverter for less than $30, surely the added expense for automakers to build that functionality right in at the factory (beginning at the drawing-board stage) would have to be nominal.

And y’know, there’s a little "Oliver Stone-esqe" part lodged deep in my primative monkey brain that wonders if there might just be some minor conspiracy at work here.   Manufacturing & marketing all those assorted power inverters & "cigarette lighter" chargers for every gizmo known to man is probably quite a profitable business, after all.   Maybe "big electronics" is in cahoots with "big oil" in a dastardly & insidious plot to keep us all hopelessly strung-out on all those annoying, blister-pack-bound, cheap whatzits & doodads for the obsolete car power port.

What do you think?   Isn’t it time for the old 12-volt power port to go away?

Pondering Postage

U.S.P.S. rolls out the new Forever StampAs of today, May 14th, the U.S.P.S. has raised postage rates again.   Now it’ll cost you 41¢ each – an increase of 5% – to mail standard letters.   What’s more, a new law signed by President Bush back in December ’06 ties postage increases to the Consumer Price Index (a measure that tracks inflation in consumer goods & services) starting in 2008.   This means that future bumps will be even more predictable.   And the U.S.P.S. can apply for one more rate hike before the new law takes effect.

As was the case with the previous postage rate increase, this latest round of price hikes on stamps leaves me wondering…

How much does this really matter anymore?   Undoubtedly, many small businesses & non-profits will be feeling some financial squeeze from this.   But aside from the sheer frustration of inflation in general, how much does this affect us average people?

With the use of virtual forms of money (online banking, e-payments, direct account drafts, & money transfer services like PayPal) continually on the rise, I suspect that we’re rapidly approaching a time when the Internet renders postage stamps entirely irrelevant.   I mean, c’mon, just how often do you actually stick a stamp on an envelope anymore?

By the way, those new Forever Stamps aren’t necessarily a very good investment.   Sure, once you’ve bought Forever Stamps and postage rates go up, their value has increased.   But given that postage rates typically rise an average of 3% annually and that even a basic savings account offers a better return than that nowadays, this investment doesn’t seem so sound.   So it appears that the U.S.P.S. is counting on cashing in on consumers’ iffy math skills — they’ve already printed five billion Forever Stamps and are poised to quickly print more if there’s sufficient demand.   In essence then, isn’t the Post Office trying to con us out of an interest-free loan?
 

Low-Tech Learning Leaps Ahead

Baby & notebook PCOn The Bamboo Project Blog, Michele Martin recently noted an article Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops from The New York Times.   Although she cited this as a prime example of how technology cannot create change if culture remains unchanged, but there’s also an underlying theme that echoes one of my chief arguments against MIT’s OLPC project.   The article observes that many schools that had launched programs to provide laptop computers are now reconsidering because they seem to have no impact on student achievement.

Author Winnie Hu referenced studies showing no real difference on state test scores in schools with laptops – although some data suggest better math class performance from high-achieving students with laptops than those without.

Diehard proponents insist these programs are failing simply because teachers haven’t been trained to integrate the use of this technology into their classes.   But when 6 of one of the study’s control group schools (ones whose students didn’t have laptops) were offered computers this year, they opted not to accept them.

As I’ve commented before, I worry about making computer-use skills a priority for kids.   Could computers, in fact, be a barrier to kids learning to think creatively and solve problems?   Are we naive to assume that technology will magically equate to a more efficient learning environment for children?   Does this concern anyone else?   Post a comment!
 

Pot vs Kettle

By now, you’ve probably read or heard something about radio host Don Imus and his reference to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" on April 4th.   MSNBC & CBS Radio suspended Imus for two weeks as a result of that remark.

Despite having issued an apology for the insensitive remarks, Imus has come under numerous attacks in the days since.   Notably, infamous Rev. Sharpton called Imus’ comments "abominable and racist," repeatedly demanding that Imus be fired.   Notorious champion of the people, Rev. Jesse Jackson & his enraged entourage picketed with signs, shouting "Imus must go," and insisting that Imus’ comments contribute to “a climate of degradation.”

There’s no defense for his ill-conceived, hurtful comment — and I’m no great fan of Imus’ droning patter anyway — but just the same, I really appreciate Michelle Malkin’s candor & perspective in her blog entry: Imus vs. the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks Chart   (Warning: Strong language.)

One dumb shock jock’s insult is a drop in the ocean of barbaric filth and anti-female hatred on the radio.   Imus gets a two-week suspension.   What kind of relief do we get from this deadening, coarsening, dehumanizing barrage from young, black rappers and their music industry enablers who have helped turn America into Tourette’s Nation?

Malkin lobs a well-deserved grenade of guilt at the self-righteous Reverends & their opportunistic cohorts for being quick to condemn Imus for a one-time gross error in judgement yet conveniently overlooking the onslaught of vile racial- & gender-degrading junk (a.k.a. "music") that consistently dominates the media. (See Billboard’s top 10 Rap songlist.)   In short, Malkin’s well-stated indictment syncs with my rants about much of urban music is morally bankrupt.

Update:  Imus has been fired.   Great.   Now that they’ve established that there’s to be no tolerance for racist or misogynistic language, maybe those same outspoken community leaders can focus their moral outrage at the media & advertisers for their promotion of – and profit from – the negative characterizations, vulgarities, & antisocial behaviors found in most Hip Hop & Rap culture…
 

Daylight Scam Time

As you surely know by now, Daylight Saving Time started 3 weeks earlier and will extend a week later this year, causing a fair bit of grief for IT folks like Dede & me. The California Energy Commission’s explaination of DST:

One of the biggest reasons we change our clocks to Daylight Saving Time (DST) is that it saves energy. Energy use and the demand for electricity for lighting our homes is directly connected to when we go to bed and when we get up. Bedtime for most of us is late evening through the year. When we go to bed, we turn off the lights and TV.

But while proponents of DST claim it’s meant to shift our day to make better use of natural light, how many of us actually use the sun as a major light source? It isn’t like we’re all getting up at the crack o’ dawn to feed the livestock and/or work the crops. So given the lifestyle of most people now, the amount of daylight has little or no bearing upon our use of electricity. So if DST isn’t an energy savings effort, what’s it for?

I’ve been reading lots of articles and the consensus is that Daylight Saving is is really not an energy conservation plan at all — it’s a very effective spending policy. Coming down off of the holiday season, DST is just the shot in the arm that the economy needs. Yup, seems like DST is more about commerce — getting us to part with our hard-earned money — than conservation. During DST months, we use more gasoline (and oddly enough, consider which months of the year that gas prices are elevated), do more shopping, watch & play more sports, have more cookouts. In short, we’re better consumers with DST in effect than we would be without.

Now, I enjoy the long Summer days as much as the next guy, but I’m not so crazy about being manipulated for the sake of big bidness’ bottom-line. What do you make of this? Does this smell fishy to anyone else?
 

Two Steps Back

American Idol’s Simon Cowell gives this a big "thumbs down!" Well, this stinks! Just days after I praised "Big Oil" for changing their views on fossil-fuel emissions and their impact upon global warming, an online article on British newspaper The Guardian reports that the American Enterprise Institute, an ExxonMobil-funded lobby group with close links to the Bush administration, offered a $10,000 bribe (each) to scientists & economists to torpedo a major climate change report due out this week from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).