Is our food supply collapsing?

The New Yorker asks if the world’s food system is collapsing, and looks at how modern agriculture has defied the predictions of Thomas Malthus in his book “Essay on the Principle of Population” written in 1798.

The picture is not pretty:

American consumers demand huge amounts of cheese and meat. One consequence is the giant “poop lagoons” of Northern California. In traditional forms of mixed agriculture, animal manure is not a waste product but a valuable fertilizer. By contrast, the mainstream food economy is now dominated by monocultures in which crops and animals are kept apart. This system of farming has little use for poop, despite churning it out in ever-increasing volumes. The San Joaquin Valley has air quality as poor as Los Angeles, the result of twenty-seven million tons of manure produced every year by California’s cows. “And cows are relatively benign crappers,” Roberts points out; hogs — mass-produced to meet the demand for bacon on everything — are more prolific. On June 21, 1995, Roberts tells us, a hog lagoon burst into a river in North Carolina, destroying aquatic life for seventeen miles…

…much of the apparent abundance of choice available to the affluent Western consumer is an illusion. You may spend hours in the supermarket, keenly scrutinizing the labels, but, when it comes down to it, most of what you eat is derived from the high-yield, low-maintenance crops that the food industry prefers to grow, and sells to you in myriad foodish forms.

The article is appeal to push back on the industrial food producers who provide us with flabby mass-produced chicken (the average American eats 87 pounds of chicken a year – twice the figure for the 1980’s) and convenience meals packed with soya extract, and eat food which comes from lower down the food chain – more vegetables, rather than meat; more sardines and herring, rather than salmon; less produce from the large mono-culture food factories. We’d be healthier, and there would be less people in the third world starving.

Troublesome technology

I have been tearing my hair out, fighting technology, at home this last week.

Firstly, I have been trying to get a decent wireless LAN connection from the office to the cellar. The problem here is that the floors in our house are made of reinforced concrete (and, I suspect so are at least some of the cellar walls). We also have stairs in the stairwell which have metal trays containing large tiles. The result is, that the signal is fairly weak when it arrives in the cellar room where we want to use it.

Adding a repeater on the ground floor only makes a marginal improvement. I bought a couple of PowerLAN converters from MSI, which allow you to treat the electric wiring in the house as an ethernet cable, but each floor seems to be on different electrical phase, which means that although I get a great signal from any power socket to any other socket on one floor, we don’t get any signal at all between sockets on different floors. Grr!

For the moment that project (being driven by the desire to get a Squeezebox Duet working in the cellar) is on hold while I scratch my head. It is not helped by the fact that at the moment, the user forums for the Sqeezebox Duet indicate that the controller loses the WLAN signal at irregular intervals…

The other problem area is Mac OS X 10.5.2 – I had been happily experimenting with using Apple’s Time Machine to ensure completely up to date backups (in addition to making a full backup using Retrospect every two weeks). And it was working very well, I even used it to restore some accidently deleted data. But a couple of days ago my Mac Mini started having a kernel panic every time that Time Machine started running. Some searching on MacFixit quickly threw up the probable cause – a corrupt sparse image containing the Mac Mini’s backups on the Time Machine drive. And sure enough, repairing the image using Disk Utility shows a great number of errors, starting with these ones:

Unfortunately, technology has also defeated me here – after running most of the night, the Disk Utility crashed while fixing the errors and now crashes every time it tries to continue processing the file. I will have to wait for Apple to fix this one, or delete my backups and start again.

Update (2008-05-15):
I discovered I could mount the partially repaired sparse image and then deleted the last backup made by Time Machine. After doing this, Time Machine is working again. I’ll feel much more secure, however, if Apple issues a fix to the problem to stop it happening again.

EU to allow chicken-feed to contain pig remains

From today’s Guardian:

The European Union is preparing plans to allow pig remains to be used to feed poultry. The practice – banned in Europe after the BSE crisis 10 years ago – would save farmers millions of pounds as prices of cereal feed for chickens soar, say officials in Brussels.

More >

The justification for this idea is that chickens are omnivorous (they eat worms when they are pecking on the ground). One more reason for us to continue not eating meat.

Online Mind Mapping Tool


Both Ruth and I use mind mapping when we are gathering ideas for a presentation or for a new document we have to write. Not all employers are happy with the idea that their employees install software on their PCs at work, and in Ruth’s case, where she is often consulting at a new customer every few months this can be quite a problem.

There is a nice, free web-based tool from MindMeister which you can use to capture the mind maps and get around that problem. And being web-based, it doesn’t matter whether you are using a Windows PC, a Mac or a Linux box. If you subscribe to their premium service, you can use Google Gears to work off-line on the mindmaps; the next time you are online you can synchronize the changes back to your account at MindMeister. You can also import existing files produced by Mindjet MindManager and FreeMind.

Update (2008-04-27):
Take a look at Vic Gee’s excellent site for more information on web-based mind mapping tools – thanks for your comment, Vic!

Microsoft DRM woes

If you bought music from Microsoft’s MSN Music Store, you need to make sure you have it installed on the computer and operating system version that you intend to use for the rest of your life before August 31st 2008. Or you need to burn it to CD and reimport it into your music library as MP3 tracks. Why? Because Microsoft is going to switch off their authorization servers for this system of DRM (digital rights management) after that date, according to ars technica.

Afterwards, it will not be possible to upgrade either your computer or the operating system version and continue to listen to your music. This illustrates the risk you take if you buy music protected by DRM, even from the the industry’s biggest players – any time they lose interest in a market, you lose your music.

‘Apothekenpreise’ – soon history?

In Germany, if something is ridiculously expensive for what it is, we refer to it having an Apothekenpreis (pharmacy price). If you’ve seen a typical Germany pharmacy (or chemist), you’ll understand why. They are usually fitted out with the top-of-the-market shop fittings and very well-staffed. Which means that we pay 2 or 3 times as much for common drugs such as aspirin in Germany compared to the UK or the USA.

That could be about to change. Medco Health Solutions have just acquired a majority interest in the Dutch internet company Europa Apotheek Venlo, who sell medication and drugs on the German market. Europa Apotheek provides a centralized dispensing-by-mail service through drop-off locations in Drogerie Markt stores, Germany’s second largest drug store chain – a distribution model similar to Medco’s system, pioneered in the United States.

Medco had net revenues of 17 billion dollars from its internet business last year, and will very likely shake up the staid German market, which would be no bad thing – unless you happen to run a pharmacy.

Reformatting Windows (NTFS) disks for Mac OS X

I’ve bought several external hard drives recently to use for backing up under Leopard. Getting them reformatted from the pre-formatted Windows NTFS partition to Macintosh Extended Journaled has been unexpectedly problematical – usually the best chance has been to reformat (on the Mac) to MS DOS FAT format and then try to change the partition to Macintosh Extended Journaled in a second step. But it seems to depend on the drive’s controller hardware as to whether this is successful.

Carl Bach has published a way of getting Maxtor drives re-formatted. In fact – in my experience – the method works very well for drives from other manufacturers too, even cheap no-name 2.5″ external drives have allowed themselves to be changed to Mac format using his method.