Blue Marble

San Francisco Supe Proposes Government Ganja Shop

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 2:55 PM EDT

San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi wants the city to get into the drug dealing business by opening up a city-run medical marijuana dispensary. Though the law's as likely to pass as Cheech Marin is to sponsor a major public art exhibition--or something like that--it has at least been good for a chuckle: "The mayor will have to hash this out with public health officials," a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom told the SF Chronicle. "It's the mayor's job to weed out bad legislation, and to be blunt, that sounds pretty bad."

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Google Health Records: Ready for Prime Time?

| Tue Apr. 14, 2009 5:17 PM EDT

The short answer: Not so much. From the Boston Globe (via ProPublica):

When Dave deBronkart, a tech-savvy kidney cancer survivor, tried to transfer his medical records from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to Google Health, a new free service that lets patients keep all their health records in one place and easily share them with new doctors, he was stunned at what he found.
Google said his cancer had spread to either his brain or spine - a frightening diagnosis deBronkart had never gotten from his doctors - and listed an array of other conditions that he never had, as far as he knew, like chronic lung disease and aortic aneurysm. A warning announced his blood pressure medication required "immediate attention."
"I wondered, 'What are they talking about?' " said deBronkart, who is 59 and lives in Nashua.

The culprit: Bad billing records. Read the rest of the Globe story for deets.

If Google's wicked smart crew can't get the backend of a health care e-record repository right, can anyone?

I Will Use the Space Solar Farm to Rule the Earth

| Tue Apr. 14, 2009 3:25 PM EDT

It does not matter to me that the Solaren Corp denies that their space-based solar farm, designed to take advantage of sunlight unfiltered by our dingy atmosphere, could be used to blow up buildings like in Independence Day, even if they try and make it explicitly clear:

[Solaren’s director of energy services Cal Boerman] also dismissed fears, raised in the past, that the transmission beam could hurt birds or airline passengers who stray into its path. The beam would be too diffuse for that. "This isn't a laser death ray," Boerman said. "With an airplane flying at altitude, the sun is putting about four or five times more energy on the airplane than we would be."

Sure it isn't a laser death ray... until I focus its stellar energy beam using the lenses secretly hidden in my fashionable spectacles and aim it directly at downtown Canada! Just a note: my plans to rule your puny little planet may interrupt Pacific Gas and Electric power service, as the company has agreed to buy enough electricity from it to power 150,000 homes once the array comes online in 2016, but that just helps my evil scheme, since not only will I be able to blow up your grocery stores and cinemas with my laser death ray, but you will also be prevented from watching TV. …But wait a minute. If you can't watch my reign of blazing cosmic destruction on CNN, how will you know about my demands for all humans to relocate to the donut factories and start producing dozens more maple logs which shall then be shot in rockets to my space lair, where I'll still be manning the aforementioned laser death ray? Curses! Well, you win this time, environmentally-conscious humans and your overlords PG&E, but I'll be waiting.

Ethanol or Water: Which One?

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 8:17 PM EDT

Growing and producing ethanol costs a lot more water than anyone realized. Nevertheless we make some 9 billion gallons worth every year in the US. That's 13 to 17 percent of US corn production—with more coming down the pipeline.

But we could be a lot smarter about the process. Based on water use alone, some places grow reasonably cost-effective bioethanol while others produce an absurdly environmentally expensive brew.

Previous studies estimated that a gallon of corn-based bioethanol uses from 263 to 784 gallons of water from the farm to the fuel pump. But a new study assessed irrigation data from 41 states and found it's as high as 861 billion gallons of water. And some places cost 2,100 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol.

Bottom line: Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, California and New Mexico should not be growing ethanol. In the authors' words: Continued expansion of corn production in these regions is likely to further aggravate expected water shortages there.

Better growing states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky. The authors conclude: The time left for improving water consumption is limited… and immediate action needs to be taken in order to prevent a problem shift from energy supply to water sustainability.

Forum Sneak Peek: Is Organic and Local so 2008?

| Sat Apr. 11, 2009 1:02 AM EDT

So. Are you still peeved at Paul Roberts for dissing locavores and heirloom tomatoes? Well, grasshopper, Monday afternoon you'll have a chance to get in the ring with him and other foodies all answering the question: Is organic and local so 2008? If so, what's next?

Stay tuned for our MoJo Forum on organic food next week. In the meantime, you might want to reread Spoiled, watch Bryant Terry cook a vegan recessionista fave, or chow down on our meaty report about the future of food.

Update: The Food Forum is live.

Friday Cocktail: The Conflagration: Splash the G-Word, 1 Shot of Rainforest, Light My Fire & Pass the Ganga

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 8:54 PM EDT

As Steve Allen said: Do not allow children to mix drinks. It is unseemly and they use too much vermouth.
Round 1: The G-word punched through the media membrane this week. Geoengineering. Big word for the headlines. Uttered by none other than John Holdren, Obama's chief scientific adviser. He was referring to the possibility that we might be well advised to at least talk about some potential solutions to climate change that involve mitigating the shitstorm coming our way. You'd think he'd just come out in favor of pedophilia. Pour that man a drink. He's going to need one to deal with the hysteria of a misunderstanding media.

Round 2: An unusually uplifting paper at the online journal Plos One by topnotch researcher Stuart Pimm and colleagues concludes that rainforest reserves in the Amazon really are working. Fewer fires are being lit to clear trees inside then outside. They've been watching fires on what might as well be called SatellitEarthTV (can I trademark that?)—the ultimate reality show: namely, the European Space Agency's Ionia World Fire Atlas, mapping fires globally and monthly since 1996. Fewer fires are not always a result of fewer roads in the reserves, since there aren't, at least not always. The reason is partly because of a new generation of politicians in Amazona who foresee that avoiding deforestation will make money in future markets for carbon credits. I'll drink to that.

Round 3: Adding fuel to the fire is an analysis out of UC Berkeley of 10 years of satellite data on global fire activity, combined with a climate-projection model assuming little curtailment of current greenhouse gas emissions. The result: More than a quarter of the terrestrial world is likely to see relatively sharp changes in fire patterns in the next 30 years. That means more fires in some places (Scandinavia, western US, Tibetan Plateau). Less in others (southern US, central Africa, most of Canada). However less fire is not always good since all kinds of green growing plants that help mitigate CO2 need fire to germinate their seeds. Pour me another.

Round 4: It seems the cannabinoids in marijuana (THC) have anticancer effects on human brain cancer cells. This according to a new Spanish study. Tumors from two patients with the badassest form of brain cancer receiving intracranial THC administration showed signs of tumor death. Light one for the stoners.

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Who's Hating on Mrs. Obama's Garden?

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 5:50 PM EDT

Michelle Obama’s plan to plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn is old news—everyone’s been bombarded with that adorable photo of schoolchildren tilling the south lawn with Mrs. O.—and no one seems to have much of a problem with it. Sure, it’s not the first White House garden. It’s mostly a PR stunt, a lovely vegetable patch that children can visit on field trips. Maybe some of them will plant a garden of their own, or visit a farmers' market, or just eat more fresh produce. What could be wrong with that?

A lot, according to the Mid America CropLife Association. The large agricultural association was so horrified by the idea of a vegetable garden that they wrote an open letter to Michelle Obama (Mrs. Barack Obama to be precise) and sent it to industrial farmers' advocacy groups. You can read the entire letter on the web, but here are a few choice excerpts: 

Much of the food considered not wholesome or tasty is the result of how it is stored or prepared rather than how it is grown. Fresh foods grown conventionally are wholesome and flavorful yet more economical. Local and conventional farming is not mutually exclusive...

If Americans were still required to farm to support their family's basic food and fiber needs, would the U.S. have been leaders in the advancement of science, communication, education, medicine, transportation and the arts?

There's a lot to be said for advancing beyond the hunter-gatherer phase of human existence, but I doubt a home vegetable garden is enough to disintegrate several thousand years of evolutionary progress. It gets even better: 

The White House is planning to have an "organic" garden on the grounds to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the Obama's and their guests. While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder.

Really, shudder? Organic produce may be over-hyped, but the real problem is that "organic" produce doesn't do enough to find a truly sustainable solution. The Mother Jones food issue presents a number of proposals for the future of agriculture, (check back later this week for a special forum!) none of which involve reverting back to our Homo erectus habits. Or hating on home gardens.

Will H.R. 875 Kill Organic Farming? Nope.

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

For a few weeks now, Internet rumors have been flying about H.R. 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. The bill, proposed in February by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in response to the peanut/salmonella scare, would split the FDA into two agencies, one responsible for overseeing our national food supply and the other for drugs and devices. But an email (of the chock-full-of-exclamation-points variety) warns that Monsanto and other big aggers are behind the bill—and they want to use it to shut down every small-scale farm in the country, including your garden:

It is imperative that you look into this immediately and with extreme scrutiny as our heath and well-being are threatened!!! If this bill passes, you can say goodbye to organic produce, your Local Farmer’s market and very possibly, the GARDEN IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD!!!!!


Tar Sands Bad for Caribou

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 2:33 PM EDT

If health problems and polluted rivers weren't enough reason to worry aboout Canada's energy boom, here's another red flag: Declining caribou. According to a report scheduled to be released today by the Canadian government, herds of woodland caribou are struggling to survive in the boreal forests of southern Canada:

Parts of the highly technical, 300-page report show caribou herds are likeliest to decline in northern Alberta, northern Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

A boom in natural resources such as oil and gas has spurred industrial development in those parts of the country, disturbing the caribou's habitat.

Of 57 recognized herds, 29 are are "not self sustaining," says the report. If the current trend continues, woodland caribou could be gone by the end of the century. For a great visual, check out National Geographic's photo essay on the tar sands. Doesn't exactly look like caribou paradise.

How to Make Farm Subsidy Reform a Reality

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 12:11 PM EDT

Make sure to check out Grist's long take on this NYT article on the Obama Administration's botched attempt to reform farm subsidies. Basically, the issue is this: the parts of Congress that oversee food and farm policy are completely beholden to large farm producers (aka Big Agribusiness). Big Ag gets rich off the current system and fights any reform. Obama didn't make a big deal about overhauling farm policy -- he simply slipped a couple key farm subsidy reforms into the budget bill from earlier this month. Naturally, they were spiked by Congress, which, though craven on a number of issues, is particularly craven on this issue. There was no reason to expect otherwise.

(For all the reasons why farm policy in this country sucks, see here and here.)

I know the Obama White House doesn't have the bandwidth for this right now, but the only thing that is going to really change America's food policy -- so that it benefits small farmers, eaters, and the environment, instead of big agricultural producers -- is an organized campaign with grassroots support behind it. It will take commitment, money, and energy on a scale that is close to what Obama and his allies are soon going to put into universal health care and comprehensive climate change legislation. This is unlikely for a number of reasons, not least that the public is largely unaware of the problems with food and farm policy. But it's hard to see how anything short of that is going to be effective. Does Obama have the political courage and the political capital to make that happen? Doubtful. Would any president?

One last note -- if you haven't already, check out Grist's hot new site.