Thursday, June 19, 2014

Occam's Razor and the Lure of Technology

I learned about Occam's razor in a college philosophy course and it made a strong impression on me. At the time, I was strictly a science major - biology and chemistry - and the idea appealed to me.

According to Wikipedia, Occam's razor is
"a principle of parsimony, economy, orsuccinctness used in problem-solving devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better."

In other words, the simplest solution is generally the best.  We humans tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and often, when I am feeling particularly perplexed, this bit of wisdom reminds me to step back, breathe deeply, and think about a simpler way to get to the result I am seeking.

Yesterday, when I read a story about some newly genetically modified bananas that are set to be tested on human beings, the full force of this theory slapped me upside the head.  You can read the entire story here, but the gist of it is this:  For the last nine years, researchers in Australia, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been attempting to enrich bananas with Vitamin A in an effort to combat the lack of this vital nutrient in the diets of many African children. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, immune deficiencies, abnormal brain development, and death.  And so, these researchers have spent years and years and untold millions of dollars attempting to engineer a better banana and they think they have finally done it.  They will begin feeding it to human beings soon (the article does not say which human beings where) and hope that by 2020, (a mere six years from now), they can begin planting it in African countries and harvesting it.

Beyond the obvious issues I have with GMO foods and human trials whose effects we cannot possibly predict, I am speechless.  I know that Bill Gates' life was founded and built on technology, and I know that he has seen it do amazing things. I understand that he is completely besotted with the idea of technological solutions for nearly every problem he sees, and I know that his foundation has long been in bed with the likes of Monsanto, but this entire endeavor is so wasteful and misguided I can barely breathe.  I cannot claim to ever have worked with the man, so I don't know what his managerial style is, but I can't imagine being a part of his organization and not pointing out the fact that a potential solution to Vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition ALREADY EXISTS. 

Those of us humans who know a little about nutrition and real food call them sweet potatoes.  They grow quite well in many African climates and have boatloads of beta-carotene - the form of Vitamin A that has been engineered into these bananas - and have already been tested on humans for tens of thousands of years.  In the absence of massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, they are quite healthy for people of all ages and easily consumed and digested by infants and toddlers.  And they didn't require a massive investment of money or time to develop.

Of course, you can't patent sweet potatoes, so perhaps therein lies the rub. But if a non-profit organization like The Gates Foundation is truly interested in solving the problems of world hunger, they ought to stop wasting millions of dollars on R&D and look to the solutions that already exist.  Helping African communities get access to a healthy, well-balanced diet is surely simpler than they think. There is no reason to engineer food in order to feed people unless you are blinded by your love of technology. Just because you can engineer it doesn't mean you should, especially if it will cost more in time and money than a solution that is already available and you can't be sure the outcome will be good for the people you say you're interested in serving.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Trick of Time

The past couple of weeks (and the next week or so, as well) can only be characterized as volcanic. Most of the time, my life moves along at the same pace, even with minor changes in routine, and while I know that time is marching on and things are changing incrementally, imperceptibly, I have accepted that one day I will look back and be astonished at how far we've come from one place or another.

And then there are times when it feels as though I am lost in an unmanned capsule hurtling through space at the speed of light en route to a destination I knew about but somehow didn't realize was so close.

Eve graduated from 8th grade last night. After four incredible years at my favorite middle school on the planet, she is done.  We watched her play basketball for four seasons, learn to tap into her own unique talents and tendencies to develop into a strong leader, forge friendships with a diverse group of girls who make her laugh and cry, and I knew this day was coming, but like these things do, it happened slowly and then instantly. She is so ready to move on to the next chapter, and I am so glad I have the next two and a half months to get more mentally and emotionally prepared for it. She likes to torture me by saying things like, "You know, Mom, I can get my driver's permit in less than a year if I want." For my part, I continue to remind her that we live in the city and there's a bus stop half a block away if she wants...

She was home yesterday when a friend came to have lunch with me and we invited her to join us.  At first I was afraid she might be bored with our conversation, but I needn't have worried.  Somewhere along the way she has grown into her aspirations of confidence and independence and she was a lively and appropriate part of our visit.

Tomorrow, Lola turns 12. When she got dressed for last night's graduation ceremony and appeared in the kitchen ready to go, I noticed how long her legs are getting and how the roundness of her cheeks has melted away as she heads inevitably toward teenagerdom.  She still loves watching SpongeBob Squarepants and snuggling with me on the mornings that I wake her up for school, but she is following her sister's example of spending more time in her room alone and asserting her ability to make more decisions.  The great debate this year revolved around which movie she and her friends would see this weekend, given that some parents are uncomfortable with the PG-13 content of the ones on their short list. It is such a challenge to watch these girls straddle goofy girlhood and the desire to be grown up, although I suspect it is more of a challenge to be living that dichotomy.

As for me, I am struggling to find some clear perspective on what my role is at this juncture.  I don't want to hold on too tightly, clenching my fists around the golden threads that tether them to me, but I'm not ready to completely let go, either.  As I watched Eve and her friends glide across that stage last night to get their diplomas, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the hours of sleepovers and carpool driving I was lucky enough to be part of, privy to some inside jokes and candid conversations and the march toward young adulthood they each took in their own time.  I was moved to tears when I heard one of them acknowledge the strength of the foundation they have all given each other, a platform from which they can all leap confidently.  I am looking forward to two more years of that with Lola, starting with next week when I'll chaperone their final trip of the year - a three day bike and camping excursion on a local island a few hours away.  I am excited to watch them challenge themselves physically and emotionally (and I've already told them they are responsible for pitching my tent since I've never done that in my life) and come together as a class to problem solve. I fully anticipate that there will be tears of joy and frustration and at least one girl will likely get shoved into the water, whereupon the rest will follow in solidarity.

In the abstract, I know what is to come for Eve as she heads off to high school, and I also know that these next four years will march by slowly and surely until there is another seismic shift forward that lands us squarely in the lap of high school graduation, amazed that it came so quickly.

I am a little sad, and very nostalgic, but more than anything, I am overcome with love for my girls and my fabulous husband and an intense feeling of gratitude that I am lucky enough to witness and be part of their lives each and every day as we move toward these momentous events in all our lives.
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