Friday, December 06, 2013

Appropriating the food chain with patents

Artificial foods are apparently the Next Big Thing.

As a story, “artificial meat” or “artificial egg” has just about everything a writer could want. It's got big-name investors excited (Bill Gates is on the bandwagon). It's got science (more on this in a minute). The word “sustainability” gets tossed around with careless abandon (as if adding electricity to chemicals is greener than a farm). And it plays into modern guilt about eating meat.

It doesn't get much better than that, does it?

I have to confess that the science angle confuses me – not because I'm confused by science, but because any group of “food hackers” (as the cool writers call them) could be transplanted into the labs of any food multinational without having trouble with the transition. The journalist, however, would suddenly find their science intimidating and evil instead of exciting and “food hacker” cool.

But what really troubles me is that a statement like this, from a piece in Mother Jones, passes without serious examination:

“The goal, Tetrick explains, is to replace all factory-farmed eggs in the US market—more than 80 billion eggs, valued at $213.7 billion.”

If you look for the money, you find this patent application: “Plant-based egg substitute and method of manufacture”.

As you would find if you follow the money on any of the new “food hacker” heroes. I won't bore you with a list.

But it's odd, in my mind, that the same Mother Jones that can easily see through Monsanto's patent-driven bid for world domination – “Monsanto: all your seeds are belong to us”, for example – can't look behind the “food hacker” curtain to where the patents are.

The question enthusiastic journalists fail to ask is really quite simple: do you want a world in which an entire foodstuff's supply chain is owned by one rich entrepreneur – sorry, “social entrepreneur” as Josh Tetrick's Wikipedia PR says?

Do you want to eat by sufferance of one patent-owner? I don't.

Monday, December 02, 2013


Here's where it gets difficult.

I'm going to talk about depression, which I, like so many people, have had as a long-term companion.

I fear talking about it, because like so many people, I have an employer or worse, a putative future employer who might say “no dice.” I suspect today's employer, The Register, isn't going to flick me. Who knows what might be in the future?

And I'm not going to talk about treatment.

I'm going to try to talk about experience. I'm trying to describe the inside, because it's so hard to understand from the outside: and because those outside suffer pain that isn't theirs, because it's so easy to think you're responsible for someone's depression.

Just because you love us. Think: if your loved one had a cancer when you met them, why is it your fault, just because you didn't understand it back then?

In depression, there is no such thing as a small crisis or a reasonable perspective.

Perspective? I can do it very well, with one proviso: the crisis belongs to someone else. Call me to talk about your crisis, I'll be calm and rational, gentle and sympathetic, and I might even find the right words to say.

Drop a crisis on me, and I have no perspective whatever. I can lay out the steps I need to take and take them, but inside, I am lost in panic and suicidal thoughts.

Some crises are more equal than other, if you're on the outside of this damned thing. On the inside, any crisis – even the crisis you imagine – looks the same.

I fear I have offended a friend? That's a crisis.

Ms T has a fever? That's a crisis.

Something happened that a bunch of public health announcements tells me to treat like a crisis, even though I know it's a visit from a minor ailment I've dealt with every few years or so? Yeah, that's a crisis as well.

I want a hello from someone who's incommunicado because of travel and isn't answering? That's a crisis.

Lightning knocked out an expensive and crucial part of my business, and I don't know its insurance status? Also a crisis.

And so on.

Depression, at least how it hits me, destroys perspective. You don't even get the fake perspective of a painting. There isn't a perspective, there's just …

Fuck, I don't know what. I don't know how to describe it. Something happened, and suddenly I'm feeling like this, and my sons have decided that it's not a good time to talk to me, and Ms T (why do I fear her death? This is why) is trying to stroke my arm, but I want to pull away and get angry, but I don't want to hurt her so I stand still and listen to reassurance that doesn't help, and …

It frustrates the daylights out of people – I know from the experience of others – that someone feeling this way simply withdraws from everything. We, the sufferers, leave those closest to us, those that love us most and best and longest, outside the doors we erect against them.

And then, of course, we feel guilty for locking the door.

No, I don't have an answer. Not even on a good day do I know how to defend against the bad days. I fight my way through and, because I have the unbelievable good fortune of Ms T and never-ceasing talk, I somehow talk my way through.

Right now, the talk isn't finished and the dark hasn't lifted. And I'm not offering prescriptions or suggestions. I'm trying to describe the experience, and words are so bloody inadequate.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

You can never go home

A friend of mine is having some marital issues, and that got me and Ms T talking.

We've had hard times. Getting through a catastrophic illness isn't easy. Adjusting to life afterwards isn't easy. Shit, even the normal stuff of mortgages and children and employment isn't easy.

And we're still here and together and wondering how we got through, and agonising over what to say to someone else having a hard time. And we got somewhere, and it's the point of this post.

A relationship or a marriage can get through the tough times. If there's one insight I have to offer, it's not “how to get through the tough times”. It's “what about afterwards?”

You see, the story always ends at the “happy ever after” and doesn't tell you what the “ever after” feels like.

If you want the “happy” bit of the “ever after”, the only lesson Ms T and I can possibly offer is that you have to understand something: it won't be the same.

You can never go “home”, wherever that is.

I'm not going to reiterate the travails of Ms T's illness, now better than three years old. But at some point in those three years, we decided that what is left to us in the future is more important than trying to perform a constant CPR on the past. So somehow, by mutual consent and without actually deciding to, we made a decision that made the new foundation of our marriage.

We put our hands together, gripped tight, and walked away.

Back in our pasts, there's a woman who – made up by an expert on the day – looked like a film star when we married.

Back in our pasts, there was a man who could do so much more than I can.

Back in our pasts, there were so many things.

But if we tried to cling to those things, there wouldn't be an us to cling to, to love, to try to fashion a future.

You can only make the future out of the materials you have to hand. And if they've been ransacked by circumstance, you have to decide: do I want to scrap it all and start again – would I want to buy a Harley-Davidson and hope someone young and nubile scrambles on behind – or do I want to remake a future with someone who I know loves me?

The decision was thrust upon Ms T and I in an awful hurry, because she was so close to death when I took her to RPA emergency a few years back.

Somehow, in the last three years of crisis, we reached a mutual decision, or perhaps we both made the same choice at the same time.

We walked away.

Not from each other: from what we once were. We farewelled our last sentimental dreams of what we'd thought we'd be, back in 1991 when we married. We took each others' hands, turned our backs on our youth, and walked away.

It's like this: you can get through the crisis. You can do it together or not, but either way: you won't be the same. The “you” that you treasure with a sentimental tint, the “you” that you hope will be sepia-coloured via Instagram …

By the time you're wondering what changed, that's already gone. The only decisions you can make involve the future. “What do I want?” is the crucial question, and somehow, Ms T and I answered it together, that whatever the changes in us or the world we faced, we'd hold hands and manage, somehow.

It wasn't easy. When we talked this through, tonight, we cried together. Would I love to have her back as the film-star-bride of 1991? Of course. Would she love to see me again, without my grey beard and deaf ears? Ditto.

But we hold on, not to what we were then, but to what we have now. We have a new contract, a new accord, a sword we managed to forge in the fires of crisis.

We have taken each others' hands, and farewelled old dreams. There's nowhere to go anyhow: our parents are all long dead, there's no emergency bolt-hole for us to flee to if it gets too much. There's no childhood bedroom to retreat to.

You can never “go” home. You can only make one.

Growing up is hard, even if you're 50 years old.