Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hand over your DNA!

Are you my ancestory?? is the website. The smiling face on the home page is said to belong to a satisfied customer who is 38% West European, 24% Scandinavian, 16% Irish, and 11% Greek. (Hmmm. This only adds up to 89%, wonder what part of this poor guy is missing!) You could get your racial/ethnic mix tested for only $129 Canadian. There are many other websites as well that offer to trace your genetic origins based on a swab you send in. 

I’m not a geneticist; not even close. But I have to admit that I’m skeptical about how one can be genetically Greek, for instance. Japanese, Scandinavian, British are neither ethnic nor racial designations, surely these appellations link to citizenship, which has no genetic component. If I think of my ancestry, I’m sure a genetic test would not indicate “Canadianess,” I’m likely nearly 100% West European, a piece of information that’s totally useless. (It might be useful if the genes that most West Europeans carry also figure in a physical condition that could kill me, something like gereonteritical europeanensis—don’t look this up; it’s fake news.)

Obviously, the retailers of genetic ancestry services have grouped and named genomic categories in such a way that the appearance of meaningful information is present. But we all know about retailing that it’s not about public service, it’s about profit. And if we’re the kind of people who can be enticed into buying a basket of sheep manure in Christmas wrapping for a mere $129 Canadian, well, you get the drift.

My brother ordered an EPP heraldic crest; what he got for his $10.00 was as phony as the Donald Trump Fact Society (DTFS). What somebody out there got was $10.00 minus the cost of a piece of xeroxed paper, a cheap envelope and a postage stamp. Sell this as a remedy for low self esteem to 10,000 people and you’ve made . . . well, you do the math.

We still put a lot of stock in the relative worth of racial, ethnic, religious, language and national origins. Yet none of these are predictors of our quality as creative, honourable, faithful, peace-loving human beings in a sea of other, almost-identical humans. Truth is, one can brag over coffee about being 20% Caucasian, 20% Native American, 20% Oriental and 40% genetically sprung from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Thomas Edison, Florence Nightingale and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow . . . and still be a total jackass. 

It’s happened.

Or one can count Genghis Khan, marauding Huns and Joseph Stalin in ones genetic ancestry and still be the one who develops a cure for cancer while fighting AIDS in the jungles of England and writing romantic poems with lots of trees and birds in them, and constructed in perfect sonnet form.

Genetic DNA may well determine body build, appearance, propensity to be vulnerable to certain health issues, etc. I guess I'm more interested in spiritual DNA, cultural DNA, educational DNA, nutritional DNA, etc.; those precursors that actually make us what we are to our families, friends, community.  

(If you wish, I can advise you on better ways to flush away $129. Or if you can’t decide among the millions of “better ways,” send it to me and I’ll invest it for you. I could make you very, very rich and if not, $129 is no great loss . . .

. . . eh?)

Just hope you're never faced with something like, "I suspect your 17.5% Kurdish; your nose gives it away. Let me swab the inside of your cheek! It'll probably also tell me whether or not you are likely to become a terrorist!"

Monday, January 09, 2017

Let's put our flags down and talk.

Driftwood at Las Lajas

The Washington Times in March of 2016 reported on a speech President Obama gave to Argentinian students. In it,  he was basically making the point that the hard-line choice between capitalism or socialism need not be their only options when visualizing their future politic. He went on to say that under Castro’s communism, Cuba was able to realize good education and health care for all Cuba’s citizens, but that the same system proved unable to develop a decent, working economy. Similarly—although the capitalist market place economies have produced huge economic growth—modifications have had to be made in order to ensure that citizens benefit from these results.

His point was: look for choices that work in your place and time, and don’t be tied to an ideological allegiance to either extreme.

There is, of course, a large anti-Obama cohort in the USA and any number of websites use this speech and some references to a friend who voted for a communist candidate in college to allege that Obama is, in fact, a communist. (See and search “Obama is a communist” to access the gist of that discussion.) One irony is that the American constitution guarantees freedoms that would certainly allow anyone to legitimately hold to a political philosophy that is socialist and to campaign in that direction, so how can being a socialist automatically make one un-American? Similarly, the attempts to prove Obama to be a Muslim (as a condemnation) defy the same American constitution's guarantees of freedom of religion.

The notion that America is a capitalist, Christian place and must defend itself against any threat by other economic or religious alternatives is a delusion. Although the economies in North America largely operate on free market principles, the practice of providing health care at state expense, supporting child-raising with government subsidies, the provision of education at taxpayers’ cost, support of the poor through social welfare programs, all these fall under a “socialistic” rubric. Not to mention that governments regulate and tax corporations—the scope of marketplace freedom is not unlimited.

We live under mixed economies in North America—not capitalist, not socialist, but we have generally come to do what works for us in our time and place. That was exactly Obama’s point in his speech to the students. The USA leans more toward the capitalist extreme than Canada, but neither country can boast of being a bastion of either extreme position; we will continue to find the mix that works for us. Sweden leans more toward what’s sometimes called the ‘granny state’ than either of us. It seems to work for them.

One lesson history should have taught us is that attempts to impose either the pure capitalist or the pure socialist economies have always been disastrous. Both systems, when left unmodified, produce elites that either through political-party status or through the accumulation of obscene wealth produce ever- increasing inequality. Both systems unmodified produce an upper class and an underclass. Both systems tend to decay as inequality mounts: citizen participation decreases; cynicism and non-cooperation turns to active protest, even sabotage; citizens whose allegiances veer toward either the left or right turn on each other, blame each other for their perceived problems. In short, community and the community spirit seeps away until national goodwill is badly damaged or gone.

The Soviet Union breaks down, the Roman Empire collapses, Tiananmen Square protests are crushed, the 2008 economic crisis in the USA sees taxpayers blackmailed into rescuing irresponsible bankers, North American politics is polarized as never before, Greece and Spain verge on economic collapse, Brexit happens.

Latin America has had more than its share of right-wing dictators, doctrinaire communist dictators, bloody uprisings, foreign interference and failed coups. Obama was advocating that students put down any flag-waving, ideological biases and work together in negotiating what mix will work in their country at this time. It’s exactly what’s needed all over America; it’s the only approach with any real chance of long-term success.

Unless your definition of success is a full-scale, fight-to-the-death showdown in the OK Corral. That could be fun too.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Tanker, pipeline, tanker, etc.

I didn’t know until today that a major crude oil pipeline crosses Panama from the Pacific to the Carribean just south of where I’m writing this. Reading about the pipeline reminded me that a cross- mountain pipeline development (Kinder-Morgan) has been approved to increase capacity for transporting oil from Alberta to tidewater at Vancouver. When the pipeline here was completed in 1982, a road was built connecting the two oceans, a road we traveled a year ago to visit a friend in Bocas del Toro. I noticed then a large, white pipe exposed where it crossed ravines and rivers and buried—I presumed—where it didn’t. I took it to be an aquaduct.

Originally, the pipeline facilitated the transportation of crude from Valdez, Alaska to the Gulf Coast refineries in the USA. Up to 20 tankers a day carried the oil to the terminal on the Pacific side of Panama from where it was pumped across the isthmus and reloaded onto tankers at Bocas del Toro on the Carribean side. It makes for a mind-boggling potential for spills.

The Panama Canal has affected the practicality of the tanker/pipeline/tanker sequence for moving crude, but the pipeline has been adapted for forward/reverse shipment and still moves oil between the USA and Ecuador as well as from Venezuela to the Pacific

Back in 1982, scant attention was paid to environmental impact, and “PTP [Petroterminal de Panama S.A.] has applied little restraint in construction and operations of the pipeline with consideration to the environment. The pipeline project "was approved and completed in 1981–1982 before submission of an environmental impact assessment". ( The pipeline crosses the Panamanian Cordillera and both as a result of it and the road construction required to facilitate its construction and servicing, there’s been a marked disruption to delicate ecosystems, soil erosion, etc.

You can take a visual tour of the pipeline courtesy of Petroterminal de Panama S.A. by clicking here.