Friday, March 31, 2006

Avian Flu and Intellectual Property

Illustration of a Pheonix breed rooster and hen
Data hoarding continues to impede avian flu research. While many samples of the virus have been collected and genetically sequenced, the researchers, labs and nations involved have been reluctant to make this information public.

Everyone hopes to be the first to win fame and fortune as the developer of the first avian flu vaccine, the patent-holder on the next flu drug, or even the genetic engineers of the flu-resistant chicken.

The chicken engineers are thinking big. Just look at this quote from the UK Times:

Even if the technique works, it will be several years before it can be used to stock farms and it also faces important regulatory hurdles and a battle to win over public opinion. If these obstacles are overcome and farmers are willing to adopt GM chickens, the entire world stock could be replaced fairly quickly.

Once we have regulatory approval, we believe it will only take between four and five years to breed enough chickens to replace the entire world population, Professor Tiley said. Developing flu-resistant chickens has clear benefits for human health and animal welfare, as we wouldn't have to slaughter chickens around the world. Chickens provide a link between the wild bird population, where avian influenza thrives, and humans, where new pandemic strains can emerge. Removing that bridge will dramatically reduce the risk posed by avian viruses.

Wow. Replacing the world's mind-boggling diversity of chicken breeds with a few genetically-engineered breeds.

One of our favorite pastimes this time of year is catalog shopping for chicken breeds. We get the catalog from Murray McMurray Hatcheries and weigh the strengths and weaknesses of various breeds. Some are bred for egg laying, some are bred for meat, some are old fashioned "dual purpose" birds. Some are known for temperment, important if you have a small yard and close neighbors. Some have retained "broodiness", the instinct to set on eggs and raise chicks that has been discouraged in lines bred strictly for egg laying. There are fancy breeds, blue egg layers, Polish crested chickens, and feather footed cochins.

So many chickens! Some breeds are foragers, ready to go out in the world and scratch for their dinner. Some are bred to just hang around and pump out eggs. Some are smart enough to roost in the trees at night. Some have had the sense bred out of them; they just huddle on the ground and wait to be eaten.

Each breed is the result of generations of breeding. I suspect the smarter, thriftier birds are the result of breeding that spans human generations, not poultry generations. There are countless more varieties of chickens, a different variety living in each little corner of the world, bred for centuries to best suit the microclimate and needs of the people who live there.

This is the old-fashioned method of genetic engineering: selective breeding and cross breeding to secure the traits that are favored. In good times, you might breed for a fancy tail. In bad times you might breed for survival in famine or resistance to the latest disease.

Now, confident that the only answer is in gene splicing, we are depopulating the countysides of their locally-bred chickens, in a losing battle to contain the virus. The disease is devastating to flocks; the birds look fine one day and the next morning 80 to 90% are dead. One wonders if the clue to flu resistance in poultry lies in that small sliver of surviving birds, the ones that are being culled with the rest. Or maybe it lies with the flock next door that appeared untouched by the disease but was culled anyway.

The first images of avian flu showed us armloads of chickens, held upside down by their feet, on the way to incineration. As someone who has catalog shopped chicken breeds, I wanted to shout: "Wait! What kind of chicken is that? Show me again, right side up! What a cool bird!"

But it was gone. Not just from my TV screen, but probably from the face of the earth.

Some people's intellectual property lies in their lab. Some people's intellectual property scratches and clucks out in the yard. How odd that we allow lab-base intellectual property to be hoarded, to the detriment of mankind, while barnyard-based intellectual property is tossed on the burn-pile?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Today's news is about the release of Jill Carroll, the journalist kidnapped in Iraq. She is safe, well, and emphasizing that she was well treated by her captives.

Back in January, right after the kidnapping, Riverbend posted a eulogy for Carroll's driver and interpreter, who was killed during the kidnapping.

Today I spent daytime hours at work, where the breakroom TV is usually on Fox or CNN. I'll be surprised if Alan is mentioned, unless Jill herself brings him up.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Lake Michigan Levels: In Permanent Decline?

A 2005 study suggests that lake levels in Lakes Michigan and Huron are in permanent decline. According to the January 24, 2005 press release
:“In 1962, a shipping channel was dredged out of the St. Clair River that effectively opened a bigger drain hole in the Great Lakes,” said John Pepperell, president of Georgian Bay Association, a Canadian non-profit organization which coordinated the six-month study by W.F. Baird & Associates Coastal Engineers for GBA Foundation, a registered Canadian research charity. “Everyone knew about the one-time loss of water that was caused when that channel was first opened. However, we have now discovered that ongoing erosion is making the outlet from Lake Huron larger, allowing water to leave faster than had been recognized.”

According to the report, the channel is eroding and is now over 60 feet deep at critical sections near the outflow. It only needs to be 30 feet deep for shipping. Pepperell said that “without implementation of corrective measures, this drop represents an irreversible and ongoing decline in the long-term average levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron.”

You can read the whole report here (PDF 141 pages), the press release here,and the Army Corps of Engineers' rebuttal here. From Leelanau, surrounded by Lake Michigan, it's hard to ignore what seems to be ever-widening beaches. Lake levels do come up after a hard rain, but they drop soon after. We have been several winters without good ice cover on Lake Michigan (ice prevents evaporation) and big snowfalls to melt and replentish the lakes.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Posted by Picasa
I just downloaded Picasa 2 and I've been playing with it. This is an image of Liz that Shelagh took down by the lake. I was able to remove the shadows from Liz's face, convert her to black and white, and soften the focus on everything but her face.

She looks like she's flying.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Seussical, The Musical

This year Leland Public School is combining forces with St Mary's School to present Seussical, The Musical.

The first parent's meeting was last night. The casting is done and the kids have been rehearsing. there is only one commercial CD of the music, but the kids have been listening to it night and day.

Peformances are planned for two weekends, May 12 and May 19, at the Performing Arts Center at Leland Public School.

I've found some links that will help us old folks get up to speed. First a synopsis of the show. This article from Playbill gives some insight as to why Seussical is so popular. There is also a photo of characters in costume, but I offer this only as a suggestion. Our cast is creative and our budget is small, so I expect our costuming to look less commercial and more interesting.

Maybe like these photos from the production at Western High School in Parma, MI. Or this extensive slide show of costumes from a production near Vancouver, BC. Or Santa Monica College's production. Here's another high school production. Those folks must love to sew!

This page takes a long time to load, but it showcases the work of a middle school art class that created the props for their school's production. I was clueless when Jeremy talked about needing props for this show. Now I'm starting to get it.

You can learn more about the composer and lyricist of this show by checking out the Ahrens and Flaherty website. The photo at the top of this article is from the photo section of that website.

Monday, March 20, 2006

More HONK! Costume Photos

It's that time of year again! Time to stage a school musical. I've been getting hits on my HONK! review from people who are searching for costuming ideas for their own HONK! productions, So I might as well share some pictures from last year's show. Here is Derek Telgard playing the part of the Bullfrog, and Kevin Price as Ugly:
John Gleason as the cat:

Shelagh as Dot (the wild goose fight attendant)

Ugly is taunted by the other ducklings:

Check out my HONK! review for more costume shots.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

I'm Not This Kind of Parent, Either

A while back I wrote about navigating the fine line between parenting and interference while watching 4 year old Anna trying to ride her tricycle down the slide.

I was myself calculating exactly how long I could wait before dashing out to catch her. She eventually chose to push the trike down and then slide down after it, but she did solve her own problem.
I flashed back to this scene this morning after reading about a new trend: parents accompanying their grown adult children to job interviews.

These parents are accompanying their 20-something year old kids on job interviews, listening in on phone calls, even calling prospective managers directly.

General Electric made an offer to one recruit last fall, only to get a call the next day from the recruit's mother trying to negotiate an increase in pay, says Steve Canale, manager of recruiting and staffing services. GE didn't rescind the offer, but ''we didn't give in to Mom'' either, Mr. Canale says.

Shelagh and Liz have worked as babysitters since they were about 12. Of course Richard and I kept an eye on who they were babysitting for and how they were going to get home. We made sure that they had an adult to call if they needed it. We also made sure that once they committed to a job they did the job, even if something more fun came up. As they got older, we expected them to negotiate for themselves, and they did.

Shelagh's first "real" summer job was working housekeeping at the Whaleback Inn. Richard and I both argued against this job, but Shelagh was convinced that doing physical labor must be easier than working with one's brain and she wanted to take it easy for the summer. After two weeks she wanted to quit, but we more or less required her to stick it out for the summer. She had made a commitment. Summer is short and it is too busy to waste time replacing employees. She worked until the middle of August when her wrist got sore and the doctor told her to take two weeks off. She learned to finish things, and how to clean a bathroom really fast.

Her boss at Enerdyne is an old friend of mine. Nevertheless, Shelagh was on her own when she called Pat the next spring and told her that Enerdyne was where she wanted to work that summer.

Shelagh is working right now in a work-study position with America Reads. She drives to Vetal Elementary in Detroit twice a week and tutors 2nd and 3rd graders in reading. Lately she sounds like she is in the "this isn't so much fun anymore" phase, but she will finish because it is her job, not mine.

I did suggest that job to her, after hearing that America Reads was one of the highest paying work study jobs and observing how much she was missing kids while she was living in Ann Arbor. I don't even accompany her to the doctor anymore; I can't imagine accompanying her to a job interview.

The Chicago Sun-Times article claims that employers are adjusting to parents' participation in the job search. I find this hard to believe. Many parents of high school kids seem hell-bent on insulating their kids from the consequences of their actions. They call the principal, hire the lawyer, pay off the credit cards. Why would an employer want to hire someone who expects to be bailed out if he makes any mistakes?

More to the point, I think I would consider myself to have failed as a parent if I had raised kids who could not handle a job search on their own. What's next, arranged marriages?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Northern Spring

I love this picture. It is one of the collection of photos that Richard found in the rafters of Grandpa Gord's garage. That's my uncle Bryan Harry in the front, my great grandfather William Rowe Harry on the left, with my Grandma Mimi behind him. The lady on the right in the front is my great grandma Sarah Louise (Hawes) Harry. At the end of the table, in the sunglasses and hat is Mary Meyers, my great aunt. The lady in the white hat is Aunt Eva Lignian. That little head peeking up behind her is my mother.

I first saw this picture when Anna was about 3 years old. My mother looked like Anna.

My mother remembers many of these car trips up north. The would start about this time of year, as soon as the snow melted, traveling north from Flint to pick trailing arbutus.

I've never seen trailing arbutus, although there is an Arbutus Lake southeast of Traverse City. Nobody around here ever speaks of trailing arbutus. I always figured that trailing arbutus was gone, picked by flower gatherers of two generations ago. Last fall I was picking wild blueberries with a neighbor when we happened across a patch of it. I aim to go back this spring and see it flowering.

My mom remembers those trips as real adventures. The men of the household all worked in Detroit's then-fledgling auto industry and they were pushing the limits of both the cars and the roads. They would load the whole extended family into a couple of cars and set off. Mom and Bryan often had to share a portion of the backseat with the dogs. Mom says the dogs usually weaseled their way onto the seat and she usually ended up on the floor. When the cars broke down the women would set up the picnic while the men rolled up their sleeves and went to work fixing the car.

We are having spring, northern Michigan style, this week. Sunday was a beautiful warm day. I picked up the yard, pruned, and burned some brush. Yesterday was again warm, but with tornado, flood and blizzard warnings. It turned much colder last night. Though we didn't get much snow, the wind howled. Today, stuck in the house, my nose has been cold all day.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Leland Report

A group of people partying on an iceberg in the Leland River

I've been wanting to highlight The Leland Report for a while, and today seems like the day. Keith Burnham has published an online report every day, rain sleet or whatever, since 2001. He receives daily accolades for his photography, but I admire his ability to stick with it, day in and day out.

I can't recognize any of the above folks, but I no doubt know a few of them. Perhaps they came to the Pancake Breakfast at school this morning, to raise funds for the annual Physics Class field trip to Fermi Lab and Six Flags amusement park. This years Physics class (Liz's class) cooked and served our breakfast, while video highlights of last year's trip (Shelagh's class) played on the wall of the cafeteria. Anna made herself useful minding a group of younger kids, already thinking of how she might land babysitting jobs in a few years.

It was the second fundraising meal this week. On Tuesday we had a spaghetti dinner to benefit a school family whose father has terminal cancer. I went into mega-baking mode that day and turned out 18 loaves of bread in time to sell them at the door. Baking bread is a great fundraiser, as the product is what people actually want and the ingredients are so inexpensive.

My folks' condo is a couple hundred yards down the river, if the iceberg held up that long. If not, the river is only a few feet deep. The ones with waders will have to carry the ones without, I guess.....

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A message to Michigan's Senate Democrats, wherever they are...

I received a nice email yesterday from Michigan's Senate Democrats, apprising me of the issues that they are working on. I have received many such messages from my own senator, a Republican, and have been disappointed to find she has no apparent interest in solving Michigan's school funding crisis.

So I scanned the Democrats letter with actual excitement, wondering what they would say about our schools. Nothing.

They did offer an email address for my comments, and I obliged with enthusiasm. Unfortunately that mail was returned: "User unknown in virtual alias table".

So here is my letter, for all to see. Perhaps I can find someone to send it to when I get home from work.

Thanks for your email newsletter. I'm glad to see that you are being proactive on the issue of factory farms. This is especially important as avian flu gets closer.

BUT... I'm amazed that you have nothing to say about the number one issue for communities across Michigan: the worsening financial problems in our public schools.

Here in Leelanau County, our two largest school districts are facing six-figure budget shortfalls, despite an ongoing and creative campaign to cut costs. The $200 increase in the per-pupil grant proposed by the governor is only a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to fund increased energy costs, more rigorous graduation requirements, and out-of-control retirement costs.

One of the least publicized components of Proposal A was to put 100% of retirement costs on the shoulders of local school districts. These costs are rising fast, in part due to our nation's inability to reform our health care system. School districts have little opportunity to negotiate for savings in these costs. Where were the Democrats when proposals were floated last year to allow districts to group together to buy health insurance for staff and retirees?

Public schools are the glue that holds our communities together. They are the hope for our state's economic resurgence; without a well educated workforce we will be reduced to fighting for the crumbs of the world's riches. They are the hope for the least of our citizens, for the young and the poor, who find welcome, community and the chance to succeed regardless of financial circumstances. And public schools are the most American of institutions, bringing us together and teaching us to get along. Without public schools, we would be fighting like Sunnis and Shiites.

Michigan's Democrats should be sounding the alarm about our school funding problems. They should be telling the world, in no uncertain terms, that public schools are important and will not be sacrificed.