(Roughly) Daily

“The ancient Oracle said that I was the wisest of all the Greeks. It is because I alone, of all the Greeks, know that I know nothing.”*…

The site of the oracle at Dodona

Your correspondent will be off-line for the next 10 days or so; regular service will resume on or around April 26th. In the meantime, a meeting of the (very) old and the (very) new…

The Virtual Reality Oracle (VRO) is a first-person virtual reality experience of oracular divination at the ancient Greek site of Dodona circa 450 BCE. Immerse yourself in the lives of ordinary people and community leaders alike as they travel to Dodona to consult the gods. Inspired by the questions they posed on themes as wide-ranging as wellbeing, work, and theft, perhaps you in turn will ask your question of Zeus?…

Homer mentioned Dodona; now you can be there, then. An immersive experience of the ancient Greek gods: “Virtual Reality Oracle.”

* Socrates

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As we look for answers, we might recall that it was on this date in 1977 that both the Apple II and Commodore PET 2001 personal computers were introduced at the first annual West Coast Computer Faire.

Ironically, Commodore had previously rejected purchasing the Apple II from Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, deciding to build their own computers. Both computers used the same processor, the MOS 6502, but the companies had two different design strategies and it showed on this day. Apple wanted to build computers with more features at a higher price point. Commodore wanted to sell less feature-filled computers at a lower price point. The Apple II had color, graphics, and sound selling for $1298. The Commodore PET only had a monochrome display and was priced at $795.

Note, it was very difficult finding a picture with both an original Apple II (not IIe) and Commodore PET 2001. I could only find this picture that also includes the TRS-80, another PC introduced later in 1977.

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The photo mentioned above: The Apple II is back left; the PET, back right

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“If locusts are ravenous sociopaths, cicadas are more like frat boys – clumsy, loud, and obsessed with sex”*…

… and they are, themselves, the object of other species’ obsessions…

This spring’s emergence of periodical cicadas in the eastern U.S. will make more than a buzz. Their bodies—which will number in the billions—will also create an unparalleled food fest for legions of small would-be predators, including many birds and mammals. But some animals may benefit more than others, and any boost predator populations get from the coming buffet of winged insects will likely be short-lived, researchers say.

Tiny chickadees and mice have been known to wrestle these chunky bugs for a quick snack. Raptors, fish, spiders, snakes and turtles will gulp them down when given the chance. Captive zoo animals, such as meerkats, monitor lizards and sloth bears, will do so as well if the insects show up in their enclosure. Observers have even reported seeing domestic cats trap two cicadas at once, one under each forepaw.

This spring, three species of cicadas (collectively referred to as Brood X or Brood 10) will crawl out of the ground where they have spent the previous 17 years. They will coat the limbs and leaves of trees, sing, mate, lay eggs and then die. Uneaten corpses and body parts will add nutrients to the soil, bolstering the ecosystem and its denizens long after the boisterous insects disappear. But the famous periodicity of cicada broods can set some predators up for feast-then-famine scenarios—population booms followed by food insecurity and then sudden drops in numbers.

“In response to this superabundance of food, a lot of the predator populations have outrageously good years,” says Richard Karban, a University of California, Davis, entomologist who studies periodical cicadas. “But then the next year, and in the intervening years, there’s no food for them, so their populations crash again.”

Predators could be part of the reason that these slow-flying, defenseless and colorful cicadas emerge periodically instead of perennially. Over millennia, synchronized periodic emergences as a dense mob could have led to higher adult survival rates. Thus, the insects evolved to adopt their unusual life cycle—most of which is spent feeding underground—explains University of Connecticut evolutionary biologist and ecologist Chris Simon, who studies cicadas. “The predators are really important in driving the whole story,” she says. The success of the species effectively banks on sheer volume…

Most bird species do not travel to take advantage of cicada emergences… They live and eat in the same areas year after year, picking off the insects opportunistically instead of traveling to the cicada motherlode… cuckoos are an exception: they migrate to take advantage of insect outbreaks all over the country…

Despite all the eager predators, the life-cycle gamble on high-volume emergences pays off for periodical cicadas. Most survive predation to mate and then drop dead to the forest floor. But even if they go uneaten, their ecosystem impact does not stop there. Cicada bodies contain about 10 percent nitrogen, which is more than the concentration found in dead leaves and other typical forest litter, says Louie Yang, a University of California, Davis, entomologist, who studies resource pulses and phenological shifts. Plants such as American bellflowers will take up the nitrogen from the dead cicadas, and herbivorous mammals and insects will selectively feed on the higher-nitrogen fertilized leaves, he adds.

Patterns such as this one illustrate the ecological lens that periodical cicadas can provide on biological communities and evolutionary timelines. “I love the reciprocity of the whole system,” Yang says. “I think this kind of stuff happens all the time, but it’s usually hard to see. When these pulse events happen, it makes it really obvious—we can see that pulse pass through the system.”…

Billions of emerging insects will likely trigger predator population surges: “Brood X Cicadas Could Cause a Bird Baby Boom.”

Oh, and given climate change, 17-year cicadas could become 13-year cicadas: “The cicadas are coming. And they’re changing dramatically.”

* Catherine Price, 101 Places Not to See Before You Die

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As we bear the buzz, we might recall that it was on this date in 1923 that insulin became publicly available for use by diabetics. Frederick Banting had discovered insulin in 1921, and refused to put his name on the patent. He felt it was unethical for a doctor to profit from a discovery that would save lives. He and his co-inventors, James Collip and Charles Best, sold the insulin patent to the University of Toronto for a mere $1. They wanted everyone who needed their medication to be able to afford it.

Today, Banting and his colleagues would be spinning in their graves: Their drug, which many of the 30 million Americans with diabetes rely on, has become the poster child for pharmaceutical price gouging.

The cost of the four most popular types of insulin has tripled over the past decade, and the out-of-pocket prescription costs patients now face have doubled. By 2016, the average price per month rose to $450 — and costs continue to rise, so much so that as many as one in four people with diabetes are now skimping on or skipping lifesaving doses

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Written by LW

April 15, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility”*…

Take a look at any given corporation’s registration docs, and there’s a good shot you’ll see the address 1209 North Orange Street.

Spanning less than a city block in Wilmington, Delaware, this nondescript office building is the official incorporation address of 285k+ companies from all over the world.

On the surface, there’s no reason that Delaware — home to blue hens and Civil War monuments — should be a corporate paradise. It’s the second smallest state in America, and the 6th least populous, with just 986k residents.

Yet, nearly 1.5m businesses from all over the world are incorporated there, including 68% of all Fortune 500 firms. Among them:

In the early 19th century, every company had to be incorporated (legally established) in the state where they conducted business — and beholden to that state’s tax codes.

Post-Industrialization, huge firms like Standard Oil and the Whiskey Trust began to consolidate fractured markets. To combat this, many states set up laws aimed at regulating monopolies through heavy taxation.

But New Jersey saw an opportunity to cater to industry.

In 1891, the Garden State adopted an extremely generous corporate tax law that “would allow business to do as business pleases.” By incorporating there, a company based in another state could save big on taxes and enjoy perks like unlimited market expansion.

A flood of conglomerates took up this offer and New Jersey earned so much from taxes that it was able to pay off its entire state debt.

Pressured to incentivize businesses to stay, other states offered their own lenient corporate tax policies.

In this so-called “race to the bottom,” Delaware emerged victorious.

Adopted in 1899, the Delaware General Corporation Law “reduced restrictions upon corporate action to a minimum” and promised to maintain the most hospitable business enclave in the nation — a place where corporations could frolic in the open fields of capitalism, unencumbered by income tax, bureaucratic policing, and shareholder litigation.

In the ensuing decades, many other states (including New Jersey) reneged a bit on their corporate leniency.

But Delaware didn’t peel back.

Today, the state is still the incorporation zone of choice for corporations. The climate is so favorable that even international firms seek respite there.

What exactly makes Delaware so enticing?

Nearly 1.5m companies are incorporated in one of America’s smallest states; find out why at: “Why Delaware is the sexiest place in America to incorporate a company.”

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

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As we peek behind the veil, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published.   The story of the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work.  Fleeing the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out, with thousands of other “Okies,” for California, seeking jobs, land, dignity, and a future.

The date was timely: four years earlier– on “Black Sunday,” this date in 1935– one of the most devastating storms of the 1930s Dust Bowl era kicked up clouds of millions of tons of dirt and dust so dense and dark that some eyewitnesses believed the world was coming to an end. 

The term “dust bowl” was reportedly coined by a reporter in the mid-1930s and referred to the plains of western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and northeastern New Mexico. By the early 1930s, the grassy plains of this region had been over-plowed by farmers and overgrazed by cattle and sheep. The resulting soil erosion, combined with an eight-year drought which began in 1931, created a dire situation for farmers and ranchers. Crops and businesses failed and an increasing number of dust storms made people and animals sick. Many residents fled the region in search of work in other states such as California (as chronicled in books including John Steinbeck s The Grapes of Wrath), and those who remained behind struggled to support themselves…

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“What is it that happens in an inflation? The unit of money suddenly loses its identity.”*…

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its Consumer Price Index for the month of March. Here is some important context to help understand the figures…

When inflation numbers come out on April 13, they will likely look very high. And measured annually, inflation will probably rise further over the next few months. These headline numbers will be used to argue against the American Jobs Plan and future infrastructure investments, and even to advocate austerity.

But this response will be wrong, for three reasons:

1) The high year-over-year inflation of the coming months will reflect the falling prices of a year ago, whether or not prices are rising more rapidly today.

2) Achieving the Federal Reserve’s price-stability goals requires a period of above-trend inflation; if inflation, correctly measured, rises modestly in the coming months, that’s a good thing.

3) Even if inflation is a genuine problem, scaling back infrastructure investment is not the solution. It might even make the problem worse…

The full explanation at “The Illusion of Inflation: Why This Spring’s Numbers Will Look Artificially High.”

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* Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

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As we steel ourselves, we might spare a thought for James Buchanan “Diamond Jim” Brady; he died on this date in 1917. A businessman and celebrity in the Gilded Age, he made his fortune semi-scrupulously in the rail industry and less scrupulously in stock trading and fixed bets.

His appetites for indulgences of all sorts were legendarily huge; but his nickname was a nod to the main among them– to his obsession with jewels, especially diamonds. He amassed stones worth $2 million (equivalent to approximately $61,464,000 in 2019 dollars).

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“And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed”*…

The first patent on an animal was granted in the U.S. in 1988. But the first agricultural patents date back to 1930 and the Plant Patent Act (PPA). Since then, patent protection on seeds has been both broadened and lengthened; in the 1980’s, protection was extended beyond “utility” (a plant that uniquely did one thing or another) to the living thing itself. And the seed industry has consolidated…

For years Haribhai Devjibhai Patel has been growing cotton, peanuts and potatoes in the western Indian state of Gujarat. For years he and his family have used seedlings from one harvest to plant the next year’s crops on his four acre field.

Last year he planted a new potato variety known as FC5. It was a decision that ultimately landed him in court, because the US company PepsiCo had already claimed the rights to that very same potato variety. Patel claims he wasn’t aware of the potato’s name, much less PepsiCo’s claim…

According to the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Anand Yadnik, the lawsuit alleges that the FC5 potato is especially bred for PepsiCo’s subsidiary company Lays and their internationally distributed product: potato chips. PepsiCo was seeking 10 million Rupies or $140.000 (€ 126.000).

“I was completely devastated. I was afraid. Not in my lifetime would I ever have been able to pay the kind of damages that were being claimed by PepsiCo,” Patel said. The 46-year-old farmer has two children and earns around $3,500 per year.

The lawsuit was based on findings that PepsiCo gathered from Patel’s field. According to his lawyer, the company hired a private detective agency to provide the data. “They took secret video footage and collected samples from farmers fields’ sans disclosing their real intent”…

The case is another example of  an ongoing global trend of companies claiming property rights for plants or genetic material of plants  across the globe. 

“Resources that used to be available to mankind as a community have now been confined to privatization,” Judith Düesberg from NGO Gene Ethical Network… The number of patents on plants worldwide has increased a hundredfold from just under 120 in 1990 to 12,000 today – 3500 of them are registered in Europe,according to the European initiative No-Patents-On-Seeds

Critics argue that patents block access to genetic material for farmers and minimize biodiversity, the diversity of species and increase farmers’ dependency on seed producers.

But Bayer, Monsanto’s parent company, told DW in a written statement: “Farmers have the choice of whether and which products they buy from which supplier. [… ] Each farmer decides freely. […] Farmers will only use our products if they gain a clear advantage.”

In Europe, a case involving Monsanto and a particular breed of melon drew media attention several years ago. Monsanto had discovered that an Indian melon variety was naturally resistant to a specific virus. At the European Patent Office it then successfully applied for a patent on that trait after breeding into other melons. 

From this moment on, not only did this trait belong to Monsanto, but so did every melon variety containing it, including the Indian melon from which it originated. Patent opponents call this practice  biopiracy

According to the Indian-based market research agency Mordor Intelligence, revenue in the seed sector will reach $90 billion by 2024 compared to about $60 billion in 2018. And over 50% of the worldwide market share is in the hands of Bayer-Monsanto, Du Pont and Syngenta…

The UN report “The right to food” has raised concerns about food security caused by “the oligopolistic structure of the input providers” warning that it could also cause food prices to increase and deprive the poorest of food.

A further concern is who owns the seeds and who produces the food. According to the NGO Germanwatch, most of the seed producing industry comes from the Global North, but 90% of biological resources (agricultural products, natural materials come) from the Global South. 

While patenting laws remain more restrictive in the Global South, an Oxfam Study shows that big global players appear to be finding loopholes

A few companies are angling to sew up the world’s seed supply: “Patents on plants: Is the sellout of genes a threat to farmers and global food security?

* Genesis, 1:29 (KJV)

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As we reap what we sow, we might send well-organized birthday greetings to Antoine Laurent de Jussieu; he was born on this date in 1748.  A botanist, he is best remembered as the first to publish a natural classification of flowering plants; much of his system– which was, in part, based on unpublished work by his uncle, Bernard de Jussieu— remains in use today.

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