Author Archives: wjbarnett

About wjbarnett

Jack Barnett is a principal at Twin Pond Partners and an independent strategic consultant in the telecom industry, advising service provider clients on transforming their business models, operations and networks to adapt to ever-changing user needs and next-generation technologies in the competitive marketplace. He also enjoys mushrooming, nature walks, camping, SCUBA, square dancing, board gaming, and space exploration.

Do you GMO?

Happy New Year everyone!

During the holidays someone asked me about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and I thought it important to further expound on this. Because my thinking is definitely gray on parts of this, but very strong on two aspects – medicines and labelling of GMO foods!

First, what is a GMO? Well, it is creature or plant or virus, that’s been genetically engineered, i.e. had its DNA modified via direct human intervention affecting both itself and its progeny. But let’s be clear, humans have been modifying other species for as long as agriculture and husbandry has existed – by selecting which variants of a species to save, care for, protect, feed and water, prevent or encourage reproduction; AKA, artificial selection verses ‘natural selection’. Domestic dogs in all their variation are a sub-species of the gray wolf created by humans!

Since 1973, humans have had much greater ability to modify DNA, via direct biotechnology manipulation, including the transplant of genes from totally unrelated species. For example, using a bio-luminance gene from a fish in a bacteria, along with other changes, such that the new bacteria species will glow in the presence of certain toxins; or implanting other genes to allow the bacteria to produce human insulin, etc. The medical research, pharmaceuticals and even industrial resources (e.g. making bio-fuels to replace fossil fuels) enabled by genetic engineering methods have been hugely beneficial to the humans species and show great potential for our environment too. So I am highly supportive of this!

But I’m less supportive of genetic modified crops in food production. No, I do not believe there is any ‘built-in’ risk or safety concern about human consumption of a GMO (if you’re a US resident, then surely you’ve already eaten some, I’m certain; it’s been prevalent since the late 1990s thanks to our highly industrialized food supply). Rather my concerns are about the legalities and commercial aspects, the potential for ecological impacts, and the future risks of specific/multiple modifications.

By US patent law GMOs are patentable; meaning the company awarded the patent will have a minimum of 17 years of exclusive use of it, a.k.a. a legal monopoly. An example might be a company that modifies rice to increase its nutritional value as well as improve yields. There are plenty of examples, including the tomato with a thicker skin that makes it easier to transport, and a squash with enhanced mold resistance. But at least one seed company has taken their monopoly to the extreme, with an internal staff of >75 whose sole purpose is to investigate, threaten or prosecute farmers (or others) who use their herbicide-tolerant GMO seeds or the resulting crop in any fashion other than what the company dictates. The person may not have even signed a licensing agreement with them (the farmer does, and is supposed to require that anyone further down the chain also agrees to the licensing terms). Anyone who handles, processes, purchases, saves seeds to replant, or even has their own nearby non-GMO crop contaminated by GMO pollen is at risk being sued or threated with a lawsuit. Maybe in the future just cooking it ‘wrong’ or eating it will become a violation! This, IMHO, is commercial agriculture gone wrong.

Given the behaviors of the second company, I surely want to know when their GMO is in a product, so that I can boycott it. Correspondingly, if the first company distributed its rice without restrictions in poverty stricken areas or countries, I might decide to purchase more of that company’s products when spending my well-earned dollars. But to know this, I need more information than just is a product (or component) GMO or non-GMO.

And let’s look deeper at that herbicide-tolerant seed. The company is making out really well, selling the seed year after year as well as lots of the specific herbicide to the farmer. The farmer plants the seeds and sprays just that one herbicide to combat weeds (maybe even spraying overall less that they might have in the past). But after a few years, interesting problems could start to arise. Other herbicides might be taken off the market when their owners no longer find them economical. Certain insect pollinators that are necessary for the crop to produce well could be struggling because they no longer have a food source during the remaining 11 months of the year. Then without certain weeds in the fields (nor in the neighboring areas that are impacted too by the herbicide applications), the migrating birds and butterflies no longer have a food supply either and stop coming. Or, perhaps certain weeds start to develop their own resistance to the herbicide (like the corn has)… What now is the farmer to do? Spray more, with what?!  These are possible unintended commercial and ecological effects. We know monocultures are bad for resilience and sustainability. GMO crops seem perfected intended to create even larger use of monocultures in our food supply. Small farmers (and consumers who like variety) beware.

But as the field of synthetic biology and especially the iGEM contests illustrate, this won’t be always as simple as just a couple of genetic modifications at a time. The technology holds huge potential; both in what GMOs can do positively, but as well as for massive abuse. What happens if a peanut gene is used in wheat (just to make up an example) and some people with deadly peanut allergies consume that wheat… even if only a very small percentage is affected!?  How can these people know that this particular GMO is bad for them, but others are fine?

It’s a good thing that in the US GMOs are tested against known allergens prior to be authorized for consumption or any “open” planting/testing. But what I want to see is a label that indicates the specific modification(s) made. It can just be a simple number, much like the existing PLU 5-digit numbers used for fresh produce. In the ingredient listing, it would say something like “corn syrup GMO#1033” and maybe there’s a competitor corn seed provider that has GMO#2045. I could then decide which (or neither) I prefer to buy. Plus, we’d need an on-line database with more information, with those numbers as an index. Yes, this is more complicated and potentially confusing to the ‘standard’ consumer compared to just a GMO or non-GMO label. But it’s more meaningful and aligned better (and traceable) to the possibles risks and (at least to my) concerns.

To learn more about GMOs, I strongly recommend reading this 26-part series from what is normally a very “green”, likely anti-GMO-biased source. It seems to me to be well researched and written (if somewhat long-winded and sometimes drifting off focus). If you don’t GMO, then the good news is that since 2000 USDA rules prevent GMOs from being labelled “Organic”, so go for it! (but then again the bad news is there’s that GMO pollen in the mix,… ouch!) – Jack

What is Sustainability?

This morning I attended a wonderful talk given by Dr. Scott Smith, retiring Dean at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment during the monthly “First Friday” breakfast event, hosted by the Sustainability Working Group of the college. During his 13 years in office, Dean Smith has overseen/participated in the radical (though he didn’t use that word) transformation of the college, Kentucky agriculture and perhaps even some Kentucky culture. He told some wonderful stories and was very insightful on the rapid KY-wide transition from a “tobacco, cattle and grain” family farm culture with a ~100% male student body (in 1978 when he joined the faculty) to one that is now highly inclusive and diverse, both in its people (60% of the students are women! and with e.g. chefs, economists, etc. on the facility) as well as in the topics and species/crops/products that the college supports and that Kentucky produces. He highlighted the fears of the unknown future that the Kentucky farm community had when he took office on what would happen after the federal tobacco pricing program stopped (in 2004). He said it turned out to be very much about sustainability, organic, ‘value-add’ programs, investment and marketing (e.g. Kentucky Proud, etc.) All concepts which were almost unheard of in his own agricultural education and early teaching days.

I can’t hope to capture all the components and insights of Dean Smith’s talk here. But one particular (and small) question that he addressed really caught my brain and is very aligned with my own recent thinking. The question was “Will there ever be a Department of Sustainability?” His answer: No. Rather, sustainability is an integrated concept in most, if not, all the college’s courses and activities, and perhaps in all of our culture. This is also very true for me. And while he didn’t discuss sustainability in exactly the same way as my own thinking, he did touch on many of these same elements.

Sustainability in my thinking has at least three major elements or themes; or, being the engineer that I am, I’d say it has three “necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, requirements” to be true:

  1. [My engineering viewpoint:] The “system” of input resources, processes and outputs has to be in balance over time. If, over time, an input resource will be depleted, then the system is NOT sustainable (obviously)! If a process produces an output (whether waste or other) that accumulates over time without a place for it to go and for it to become an input (with similar flow rates) into some other process (whether natural or human-driven) then that’s not sustainable either! The “lifecycle” of each resource/element, including also the energy used/produced, must be quantitatively in balance for it to be sustainable. Math is required! Others may label this theme an environmentalist’s viewpoint, but to me it’s the fundamental concept of “systems engineering.”
  2. [Also having a ‘product manager’ mindset:] The economics of any human-driven process must be positive! Without being value-additive, a process cannot be operated for very long. A business case must exist with positive financial gains (math, again!) for those involved. When a process depends upon charity or donations, then it may be helpful (or even necessary) to get started, but it won’t be sustainable over time. And unlike any of the “resources” in #1, the human concept of this thing we call “money” has no law of conservation.
  3. [The social (a.k.a. human) being prospective that:] Any human-driven process must not cause injustice to any of the people involved. Others may use the term morality, or some other wording. And I wish I find a positive wording of that statement, rather than the “not cause” wording here (that software logic mindset again…). This theme (of the three) was not something I had understood as a young engineer (I was oblivious). But as I age (wiser?), it is ever clearer to me that “human resources” is NOT appropriate terminology! Human beings should never be viewed in the same mindset as taken with the other things we call “resources”, whether a component, natural resource, chemical compound, or any animal or a plant species, etc. Justice (not the same as fairness!) must be present in our society and communities, or else they (we!) are not sustainable! In practical terms, injustice is cause for civil unrest which leads to civil disorder which is not at all sustainable (and this is not the same disorder as in Chaos Theory).

Perhaps this third theme is better articulated by the fields of social science, politics (which is what Dean Smith referred to often), or the domain of the liberal arts and philosophers… Or, perhaps, this engineer is still learning new concepts… Which reminds me of the bumper sticker (and the series of books by Henry Petroski) that states “To Engineer is Human.”  Yet at this time, I can only hope that humanity is also sustainable! [Time to balance those equations!]

FSMA public comment deadline extended!

Below is the submission I made last Friday (the prior deadline) for public comments on the FDA’s proposed new farm/food regulations due to the 2011 legislation know as the Food Safety Modernization Act. However the deadline has been extended to this coming Friday, November 22nd. Be sure to file your own comments both here and here! We need to take control of our own food systems! – Jack

To FDA, I am a concerned citizen and strong supporter of my local community markets and farmers. We buy as much of our food from local producers as we possibly can, and prefer those that are organically certified or at least follow organic practices. These proposed rules scare me silly. It appears they are likely to devastate those businesses and the small farmers everywhere who work so hard to provide healthy and fresh food to us.

Specifically, I am worried about:
The manure and compost rules which clearly are in conflict with the current USDA organic standards.
The definition of small farms and how they qualify for exemptions. Using dollars of revenue threshold on all food is too broad and, for certain if you use a dollar amount, then it needs to be indexed to future FOOD prices such that farmers are not forced into the higher category in the future by the continuous march of inflation, labor & energy prices.
The impact of these standards on Aquaponic methods, systems and farmers. This innovative technology is capable of providing local produce and fresh fish from urban (as well as rural) farms with much lower use of potable water. Yet these standards would seem to prohibit it.
The failure of these rules to consider the relative dangers of other farming practices, specifically GMOs, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other high energy processes and their impacts (e.g. carbon emissions, dust, soil depletion, water pollution & consumption, allergies, etc) on the health and safety of both the public, farm workers and on the natural environment.

I urge you to modify the rules so that they:
Allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices, including those already allowed and encouraged by existing federal organic standards and conservation programs. Specifically, FDA must not exceed the strict standards for the use of manure and compost used in certified organic production and regulated by the National Organic Program.
Ensure that diversified and innovative farms, particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods, continue to grow and thrive without being stifled. Specifically, FDA needs to clarify two key definitions: first, as Congress required, FDA must affirm that farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, and other direct-to-consumer vendors fall under the definition of a “retail food establishment” and are therefore not facilities subject to additional regulation. Second, FDA should adopt at least the $1,000,000 threshold for a very small business and base it on the value of ‘regulated product,’ not ‘all food,’ to ensure smaller farms and businesses (like food hubs) fall under the scale-appropriate requirements and aren’t subject to high cost, industrial-scale regulation.
Provide options that treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs. Specifically, FDA must clearly define the “material conditions” that lead to a withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status in scientifically measurable terms. FDA must also outline a clear, fair, process for justifying the withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status and for how a farmer can regain that status.

Please reconsider, in better collaboration with the USDA organic standards, and reissue these regulations.
Thank you,

Jack Barnett


Solar Party

Last Saturday (Oct 26th), I participated with others from the Kentucky Solar Energy Society in a work project for the University of Louisville assisting several of their research projects going on at the new Karen Lynch Park within the Beargrass Creek watershed of urban Louisville. There were at least 20-25 people present working on multiple projects and ongoing efforts to improve and monitor the water quality and general environment. This is one of many improvement projects lead by the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, as well as others. Specifically, I and five others were there to install a 1.4kW off-grid solar system funded by UL’s research. We were the volunteer labor, but the employees of Solar Energy Solutions were the professionals.

Thanks to Matt, Ezra and Robert who took the time and extra effort to teach and involve everyone!

Thanks to Matt, Ezra and Robert who took the time and extra effort to teach and involve everyone!

The system is not grid connected, but instead will directly power a DC pump to move water up from the creek to a water tank (not yet installed) that will feed an artificial 50+ foot waterfall back down into the creek, adding oxygen in the process. All powered by the sun! The research projects will be measuring the levels of dissolved oxygen before and afterwards, and make other quality measurements to determine the effectiveness of the modification and how many of these installations would be needed to significantly improve the entire watershed.

Ezra making the final connection to the pump controller.

Ezra making the final connection to the pump controller.

Altogether the entire solar installation only took about 3.5 hours. We probably would have been much faster, except that the tin roof of the shelter had no sheathing under it, and could only support one person with extra care required. The UL team was still working to get the piping in place when we left. It was a good day for a worthy cause! – Jack


Fall is finally here! Can winter be far behind?

First frost this past Sunday morning in Georgetown KY, and this morning I had to scrape the car windshield for the first time of the season. The furnace has been checked and works (and no bills to pay to the HVAC folks this year. Yeah)! We have a pretty orange pumpkin (an organic one even!) and are once again struggling with when to make pumpkin pie, verses keeping it longer on display… Mary Anne saved a batch of green tomatoes which are now slowly ripening on our dining table. All is right in the world, yes?

But I’m also certain the first frost was late this year! Since we moved to KY 9 years ago, the first frost that kills our tomatoes and basil has always been the first full week of October, or earlier. Yet stranger! I was eating fresh basil from an outdoor garden while visiting in northeast PA this same very weekend! So the killing frost was even later in the Poconos Mountains than in KY this year! Weird weather, for certain, but yes, I’ll say it – Climate Change! There. I said the words. And yes, I know one season or one measurement or one location cannot be used for evidence of climate change, which by definition is global and over decades of time. Yet, I feel strongly that we (everyone) need to be saying it more!

I recently had a conversation with an elected local official who explicitly told me that the very mention of ‘climate change’ was a politically divisive term. He said our efforts to promote renewable solar energy would be better received (by certain political interests) if we avoided using that in our argument. Here was a reasonable intelligent gentleman, who was clearly successful in business, clearly committed to public service and was unable to accept the findings of hundreds of worldwide climate scientists and experts in their field who have found after decades of study that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and “the largest contribution… is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750” (IPCC AR5WG1). I was appalled, to be sure. But perhaps I shouldn’t be, given that a Google search for the IPCC report has as its third entry a “Right Side News” article about a Heartland Institute debunking of the IPCC’s latest analysis. What is this country turning into???

Well, probably not a ‘winter wonderland’… but I will still hold out my hopes for this coming winter season at least!

The future of …

Last week, I was an invited speaker at the Southern BioProducts and Renewable Energy Conference in Tunica MS. My topic was the Past, Present and Future of Solar Technologies. The organizers found me through my participation in ASES (which I’ve talked about previously) and because I’ve been a member of the board member of the Ky Solar Energy Society for the past 3 years. I was honored to provide a brief overview of solar technologies and some of my personal experiences to the folks there. A great small conference and a great set of people trying to make a better world.

Now, I’m not a leading expert on the current solar research going on in academia [by far], but I have been following the solar industry for 10+ years, and have invested much of my own time, energy and money into becoming educated in the technologies and their applications. We’re purchased multiple solar systems for our home (1 PV system, and two thermal systems installed). I’m an engineer, so I can’t help myself from learning how it works, why, the economics, etc. So I’ve become a solar energy advocate. And yes, I have some biases… because I believe our future depends upon transitioning off of our addiction to fossil fuels and becoming a sustainable civilization, rather than one that dies out after destroying its environment via natural resource extraction (too many examples of that in human history!).

Next week (Sept 30th) the United Nation’s IPCC releases to the public the final draft of its latest (5th assessment) report. I’m no expert on climate change or global warming either. Nor is Mary Anne (she’s an environmental scientist, rather than a climatologist). But as is my usual behavior I have spent time reading and trying to understand the prior 2007 IPCC report (ok, actually I just read the synthesis report, which in itself is >100 pages; the three Working Group reports are challenging academic tomes to read), and I’ll be trying to read and fully understand this latest update too. The new report is just from Working Group I (the other groups and the AR5 summary report are not due out until 2014), which covers the physical science basis for their findings. A condensed version for policymakers has been released in advance.

Given the media’s coverage so far and build-up already underway, I fear for what happens next. Our media-driven society seems to believe the opinion of a random person-on-the-street is just as ‘right’ and actually more important, than the hundreds of career professional experts working in the field from 39 different countries. Let’s please take the time to become educated on the topic, and actual READ the report (even if just the condensed version), rather than listening to just the ‘public opinion’ spewed out so far. I’m at least “95% certain” of certain other biases that are in play here…  – Jack

What’s Next?

Yes, it is a big deal! Microsoft is acquiring the Nokia handset business for $7.2 Billion. I have lots of reactions to this. Some minor and obscure, and others not so.

First, Microsoft (MSFT) is clearly committed now to a hardware strategy! WOW! Think about its 35+ year history of software and just OMG. Ok, sure it has nearly always sold MSFT branded mice and other minor add-on hardware for PCs. And earlier this year they introduced the SURFACE tablet in an effort to create a greater market interest for Windows8. But now MSFT is solidly entering the mobile device market, not just as a software platform provider but selling and marketing a full range of handsets and smartphones. I hope MSFT knows they have a lot to learn!

Ok, some of you are asking who is Nokia (NOK)?, and why is their handset business worth such a fortune? Well, until Apple (AAPL) entered the mobile phone business not so long ago (it was only 2007), Nokia was the #1 high-end handset vendor globally with 35% market share. They never had the same impact here in the US as they had in Europe and elsewhere. But when I was a director within Lucent’s Mobile Applications business (2001-2004), it was the Nokia handsets that had the features we wanted to use with our experimental and demo applications. Of course, Nokia didn’t make CDMA handsets, only GSM and early 3G/UMTS devices at the time, so it didn’t always work out for us (being Lucent, i.e. direct competitor with Nokia’s network equipment). Instead, we often ended up trying to use HP devices (with clucky PCMCIA cards – remember those?). Does anyone even remember HP making mobile devices? Noooo, me either…

So Nokia had a great device platform for its time. Often running neck and neck with that other innovative handset company – RIM, better known for their Blackberry – the first smart-ish phone; and similar to Apple, with a highly proprietary architecture. What RIM missed (very very sorely, now) was the move to allow mass creation of 3rd party applications (which I advocated for as early as 2002 – someday I’ll pull out my presentation from the 3GSM World Congress in Nice that year, and the following year as well). Nokia and RIM tried this, but too late. Both these handsets businesses are now on serious down swings. It will be interesting if MSFT can do something to save it; and save itself too, given that highly successful and powerful handheld devices have seriously limited the future of the PC… (Aside: I don’t think Google has learned very much, as yet, from its own acquisition of a handset business on a serious down swing…)

Then perhaps, of even more interest to some of you (i.e. ALU employees/retirees/shareholders etc.), is what will Nokia do with its cash windfall? That is, after they pay off the debt to Siemens…?

About time!

Last week the Washington Post discovered the federal government has finally begun installation of a solar system on the White House roof.

Well, it is about time! This was actually announced way back in 2010. So what took nearly 3 years for the installation to begin?  [No, this will not become a discussion of politics (no one in the solar industry wants the business swings!). Let us all remember that George W. Bush installed a solar system in 2003; after a prior republican administration removed the solar thermal system installed back in the 1970s (see this link for a review of the history).]

This was a federal procurement that had to be competitive bid. So I get that took some time, and possibly more than one round of that, plus of course the federal bureaucracy. Yet the US military has been installing solar at bases in more than 31 states over the past several years. So they already know lots of experienced, reputable installers, with proven reliability and good system designs out there. Ok, maybe, they were waiting to confirm that global climate change is a national priority… which is what the President finally confirmed last month. Can’t be that…

Or maybe, they were just waiting for prices to come down? Which is exactly what has happened! Solar PV modules are down more than 60% verses what they cost in 2010 (from ~$2/watt to $0.75/watt of capacity). And that’s way way down from the >$75/watt in 1977 – a 99% price drop over the past 35 years! So low that the panels are no longer the primary cost element in residential scale systems. Yes, there is other hardware required, such as the wiring, racking and mounting hardware, as well as the electrical inverters, which make the AC power that we generally consume, from the DC power that is natively produced. Of course, there is the labor costs (i.e. local jobs) that will vary greatly with the type and complexity of the installation site. But there’s also the local permitting, interconnect and inspection costs that can be as high as $2500 or more for a simple residential system (and will vary greatly by municipality and utility company). According to the DOE, these and other soft costs are holding back the adoption of solar in the US. Maybe that was the White House’s problem … but I doubt it!

Well…who knows what took so long inside the government. But now, the real question: what’s holding you back from going solar? Isn’t it about time? – Jack

BTW, according to a Lawrence Berkley National Lab study released earlier this month, the US average 2012 ‘all-in’ price of the residential solar PV systems was $5.30/watt of installed capacity. That’s nearly a $1 more than what we paid for our system installed in June last year (and we paid extra for US manufactured PV modules).  So these numbers may vary greatly for you too, and these are all before federal, state, and utility incentives that can lower your actual cost even more!)

Everybody Smile!

Ok, everyone, today at around 5:30pm (Eastern Time) today be sure to lookup and smile! Really, really big!

Our picture is being taken by the Cassini spacecraft from orbit. And not Earth’s orbit, but from the orbit of Saturn, which is currently approximately 898,500 million miles (1.446 billion kilometers) from Earth. Therefore it will take the light from our shinny faces over 80 minutes to reach the camera (which is taking a mosaic picture of Saturn and all its rings, while Earth ‘just happens’ to be in the background). For more detail and interesting things about this, see this JPL blogsite.  Ok, yes, we (the whole Earth) will actually be less than one pixel of the final picture, but at least in my opinion we have lots of reasons to be smiling:

  1. In other space news, Luca Parmitano (pic above) is fine!, after having to cut short a planned 6.5 hour EVA (spacewalk) on Tuesday. While performing maintenance outside the International Space Station, his spacesuit started leaking (no, not leaking air, but) water internally, and he was having difficulty seeing, hearing (his headset shorted out), and even breathing due to more than a liter of water accumulating in his helmet.
  2. The global telecom industry seems to be through the worst of the current wave of cutbacks. Much is stilled needed to return to a fully sustainable business, but the pathways and impacts of the transition to IP should now be clear to most everyone.
  3. The US government (though not Congress, as yet) seems to finally get that global climate change requires more and serious action!
  4. The DRBC has again delayed permission for fracking in the Delaware River watershed. And while some people will be getting less money due cancelled drilling leases, there’s hope that this glorious area will stay a great place to live and retire to, and that our drinking water will remain clean and pure.
  5. Our own solar PV system has completed one year of operation, and we had overall a net positive production of electricity over what we actually consumed. We’re cashing a small check from our utility for the excess that they purchased from us!

Lastly, of course, it’s FRIDAY! And the current heat wave will be breaking tomorrow! So only one more night of sleeping with the windows fully open, but while it’s still 78-80F in the house!

Hope you too have good reasons to be smiling this summer. Stay cool, everyone! – Jack