267 (1 June 2016)

Welcome to week 267!  The articles below caught my attention this week.  Please note that what are intended to be relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********).  The links to articles preceded by [SR] require a subscription to be read in their entirety, although complete articles may frequently be found by an Internet title search.

(28 May 2016): “Will microbes save agriculture?” (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-soil-microbes-20160527-snap-story.html)

——–David Perry, of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Indigo Agriculture, “believes the next agricultural revolution will come from . . . the millions of unseen microbes in soil that play a crucial but complicated role in the well-being of plants.  Perry believes that he can repackage beneficial bacteria and fungi as something akin to human probiotics and deliver them to plants to alter their microbiome in ways that will boost growth, increased resistance to drought, disease and pests, and reduce farmers’ reliance on fertilizers and pesticides.”

********As the article goes on to note, microbes “were left behind amid the rise of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  Those ushered in the biggest sustained expansion in food supply in human history, but left a legacy of environmental damage, including nitrates in water and toxic traces in food.”  So, the chemical revolution in agriculture led to many unintended consequences with which we are living today.  Surely the same will be true of the microbial revolution in agriculture the cusp of which we are on.  We can only anticipate all of the consequences in model worlds of our own construction.  You can learn more about Indigo Agriculture at: https://www.indigoag.com/.

********The article employs the word ‘hologenome’ to describe the genetic evolutionary co-dependence of plants and microbes, about which you can learn more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hologenome_theory_of_evolution.  A detailed examination of the concept can be read at: http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article/asset?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1002311.PDF.  As mentioned previously, my interest and awareness of the microbiome, both within us and without us, is due to the engaging The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health (http://www.amazon.com/Hidden-Half-Nature-Microbial-Health/dp/0393244407/), by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé.

********An alternative approach, perhaps, to a microbial approach to agriculture would be to use nanotechnology, i.e., really small chemicals.  This is discussed in “How nanotechnology can help us grow more food using less energy and water” (https://theconversation.com/how-nanotechnology-can-help-us-grow-more-food-using-less-energy-and-water-59034).  I stumbled upon this article via one of the JSTOR Daily articles (http://daily.jstor.org/suggested-readings-evidence-for-police-work-nanotech-for-agriculture-categories-for-thinking/).  It turns out that the location of the article, The Conversation, seems to be a useful source of information on a variety of topics as it provides “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.”  You can learn more at: https://theconversation.com/us.

(28 May 2016): “Opioids: The problem of pain” (http://www.economist.com/news/international/21699363-americans-are-increasingly-addicted-opioids-meanwhile-people-poor-countries-die)

********I just finished reading Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (http://www.amazon.com/Dreamland-True-Americas-Opiate-Epidemic/dp/1620402521/), by Sam Quinones.  The book has “stuck” to me like few I have read.  As a result, I have become sensitized to the frequent references to opioids in the news, whether it be local, regional, national, or international.  As I began to read this article in The Economist, I saw some familiar things but the familiar soon ended.  The dramatic point made was that although in some countries, like the U.S., opioids are used in great excess, however there are many countries in which they are not used enough, with the consequence that there is much unnecessary pain being endured.  I remember hearing from a colleague long ago that “Bad cases make bad law” and that is surely what is at work, here.  Legal and regulatory approaches developed in more-developed countries in which abuse has been rampant seem to have been adopted, and sometimes made more stringent, in lesser-developed countries.

(28 May 2016): “Oil-price reporting: Striking it rich” (http://www.economist.com/news/business/21699479-niche-business-straddling-journalism-and-oil-proving-surprisingly-lucrative-striking-it)

——–“Two lines of business have stood out of late for their inability to make money: journalism and oil.  So when it emerged on May 23rd that Argus Media, a British firm that reports global commodities prices, is to be sold to an American investment firm for $1.4 billion, it aroused a variety of emotions.  One was surprise.  ‘Data about oil markets now seem to be worth more than oil itself,’ . . . Another . . . was ‘jealousy’.  The sale has turned some of Argus’s 750 scribblers, a quarter of whom are said to own shares or options, into millionaires.”  Both Argus, and its competitor Platts, report “prices of the most widely used oil benchmarks, such as Dated Brent and West Texas Intermediate (WTI), against which billions of dollars-worth of oil are price each day.  The benchmarks are used by oil companies, oil-producing countries, derivatives traders and others to decide at what level they should price hundreds of different grades of oil.”

********The article clearly points to the importance of oil price information and how it is used in the pricing decisions of those selling oil-related products.  Clearly firms are willing to pay substantial sums to obtain pricing information, information that is generally not easy to get and not without its own price.

(31 May 2016): “Nuns With Guns: The Strange Day-to-Day Struggles Between Bankers and Regulators” [SR](http://www.wsj.com/articles/nuns-with-guns-the-strange-day-to-day-struggles-between-bankers-and-regulators-1464627601)

——–“The 2010 Dodd-Frank law . . . is one of the most complex pieces of legislation ever.  At more than 22,000 pages of rules, it . . . covers matters from how much capital banks must set aside to how they can advertise.”  The “new regulations, and growing armies of rule-interpreters and enforcers . . . are bringing striking changes to banks’ internal cultures.”  Tens of thousands of new staff are being hired “to keep their employers right with the new regime. . . . The regulatory tightening has helped change the profile of a big bank in the postcrisis era.  It now looks more like a utility, subject to complex rules about how it can do business and answering to government watchers whose careers depend on enforcing those rules with vigor.”  As a result of these developments, “formal and informal rifts are defining features of life in a bank.”  Relationships between bank employees and regulators have become more formal, and within banks, the relationships between compliance employees and bank staff have become more awkward.  Compliance employees “serve as middlemen between the regulatory agencies and bank staff,” making them “feel like hallway monitors.  A compliance officer at a large bank said that when he approaches employees’ offices or cubicles to discuss issues, they usually drop what they are doing, close computer screens and hang up phones.”

********The article provides a remarkable description of some of the consequences of Dodd-Frank.  Do those who write rules consider such things as organizational culture, in particular the relational consequences of rule changes?

May you have a good week!

Bruce

 

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