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Haiti

It's been 2 years since the earthquake. Haiti is still devastated.

Haiti

There is no dignity
when you die
poor, ten-thousand
at a time.
Your long dead
bodies lie in the streets
piled a dozen high,
some covered, most bare
to survivors stumbling
trance-like looking
for something resembling
normal. Not normal,
bodies in the streets rotting,
eyes open, staring but not
seeing survivors not
seeing a woman, a child
a mother, a daughter,
human beings
scooped together in death
dumped in a truck,
carted out of the city,
dumped in a hole in the ground,
thousands at a time,
alone -
no mourners, no music
no blessing of the souls.
There is no dignity
when you die
poor, ten-thousand
at a time.

(c) 2010 Jeffrey Seale
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I'm moving

After 5 years of blogging here, I've decided to move on. When the site issues came up this summer, I set up something over at Word Press and tried that out a little bit. But with the recent creation of Google+ it seems like the integration with Blogger is inevitable. I originally started over at blogspot until I was convinced to move over here because of the community. However, it feels like the community spirit of LJ has died over the last couple of years. I'm not sure if that's due to the rise of Facebook, the stability issues of LJ recently, or other issues. And so, I've turned off the automatic renewal of my paid account and I will migrate permanently over to blogspot. That's the place where I got my blogging start and so it seems appropriate to go back to those roots.

I know going someplace without the "friends" feature makes extra work for people wanting to read, but if you'd like to continue keeping up with my antics, you can read it here. I hope you'll drop by and leave a comment from time to time.

I loved my time here at LJ and I've met so many awesome people, both virtual and in person. It's been very cool seeing parts of your lives and careers over the past 5 years. I will keep my LJ account and follow my friends list here, so you'll still see me around. I've learned many things from all of you over the years and I can honestly say that I appreciate each and every one of you.

I've recently finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and found this passage especially timely:

As pageantry goes, what could go more to the heart of things than this story of need, a dread of starvation, and salvation arriving through the unexpected blessings of harvest? Even feigning surprise, pretending it was unexpected and saying a ritual thanks, is surely wiser than just expecting everything so carelessly. Wake up now, look alive, for here is a day off work just to praise Creation: the turkey, the squash, and the corn, these things that ate and drank sunshine, grass, mud, and rain, and then in the shortening days laid down their lives for our welfare and onward resolve. There's the miracle for you, the absolute sacrifice that still holds back seeds: a germ of promise to do the whole thing again another time.

So, in the spirit of the season, I give thanks for you all and look forward to doing it all again.

-Jeff

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It Gets Better and being different

A few weeks ago, I contacted someone with our company's GLBT employee network with the suggestion that it would be cool if we could make a video for the It Gets Better Project.

The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach - if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone - and it WILL get better.

We have several high school groups come through our site each year on tours - many of them from FFA groups. It stands to reason that a number of gay teens probably come through our doors each year. Given that rural communities tend to be conservative in nature, gay teens in that environment could be more likely to have difficulties embracing who they really are. So, I think that as a leader in the agricultural industry, we could send a strong message of hope and support to these teens. And so this was my suggestion.

Today I attended my first meeting of our LGBT employee network where the issue would be discussed. The group was supportive of the idea and we're going to try to do it. Of course the caveat is that the same issues that make it difficult for these teens would also make it difficult as a business to come out strongly in support of these teens. At the end of the day, I suspect we won't do anything that might alienate lots of our customers. We're going to try anyway and I hope we succeed. It would make me happy to know that one of those teens could be feeling down and see a bag of seed with our name on it knowing that not only do we support his family by providing them with high quality products to help make them successful farmers, but we also support them in their struggles to embrace their identity.

A funny thing happened while I was sitting in that meeting today. As I sat there and looked around the table, I realized I was probably the only straight person in the room. On the way over to the meeting, I'll admit to not knowing what it would be like attending the meeting (not knowing anyone in the room). Everyone was great and they loved the idea. But as I sat there thinking about the other folks in the room, for the first time in my life I realized what it was like to be "different". I'd say most of the time in a group of people, I am always in a group of the majority, especially being a white male. I suppose I was a little self-conscious but I certainly have a different appreciation for what it's like to be the "different" guy in the room.

At the end of the meeting I stayed and talked with the two organizers. One of them grew up on a farm and knows what those kids go through. We had watched an It Gets Better video during the meeting and as he and I talked about what it would mean if we did this, I got choked up and had to look away to compose myself. I knew I felt strongly enough about this to try to get something done, but after choking up talking about it with that guy, I learned that I care more about it than I realized. I really hope we can pull this off.

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I'm going to Africa!!!

In case you missed it the first time, and you could have easily since that entry had a generic title, I'm going to Africa next spring!

If you've read here over the last couple of years, you're aware of my growing interest in helping small stakeholder farmers in Africa. And now, it finally seems I'll get to go see African farming firsthand. Last week I sent out an email to get the logistical planning started. I had planned on gathering lots of blogging material for both here and my internal company blog. A couple of our communications folks are now assigned to help coordinate the kinds of information they want brought back to our employees. Today, I received an email from my colleague in Kenya giving me some more suggestions.

It looks as if I'll be visiting Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa on this trip. Of course I'll be meeting my African colleagues and seeing our local facilities. But the majority of my trip will be visiting small farms and meeting farmers with the goal of finding ways we can focus on helping them get out of poverty. Today I also learned that as part of the trip, I'll likely be giving talks to University groups and even some government researchers/officials about agricultural innovations, probably with a focus on combating climate change.

Over the last couple of years when discussing my personal development plan, I've half-joked that my career plan is to become agriculture's version of Bono - focusing attention on the need to increase innovation in agriculture to feed a growing population while bringing over a billion people out of poverty. Today after learning of the possibility of talking to University and government officials, I couldn't help but think of Bobby Kennedy visiting South Africa the year I was born and giving his Day of Affirmation speech:

It is these qualities which make of youth today the only true international community. More than this I think that we could agree on what kind of a world we would all want to build. it would be a world of independent nations, moving toward international community, each of which protected and respected the basic human freedoms. It would be a world which demanded of each government that it accept its responsibility to insure social justice. It would be a world of constantly accelerating economic progress - not material welfare as an end in itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of every human being to pursue his talents and to pursue his hopes. It would, in short, be a world that we would be proud to have built.

After feeling like I've been swimming upstream in my efforts to help people in Africa, it finally feels like good things are about to happen. I am so excited for the possibilities.

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The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

This is a story of validation. This is a story of redemption. It is the kind of story that we like, a feel good story. In April 1982, Dan Shechtman was looking at images from his electon microscope when he saw something that all of the textbooks and theories of the day said was not possible. In solid matter, it was known that all atoms were arranged in a repeating, periodic manner. This was the basis for crystal formation by solids and had been conventional wisdom for almost 200 years. In Shechtman's images, the patterns were regular, but they did not repeat themselves. The patterns looked much like medieval Islamic mosaics. These crystals were deemed quasi-crystals.

Shechtman publicized his controversial findings but because they were against the conventional wisdom, they were dismissed by the scientific community. The situation was so bad that he was asked to leave his research group and had to find another scientific home. It took 2 years to get his work published and another 3 years for someone else to confirm it. During this time, 2 time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling went so far as to say, "there are no quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists."

The scene at the end of the movie where the hero is vindicated occurred today when the Nobel Committee awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Dan Shechtman for his discovery of quasi-crystals. This is one of those awards for a concept that overturned a convention of science. Textbooks had to be rewritten because of Professor Shechtman's work. Quasi-crystals are now used in razor blades as well as tools needed to perform delicate cuts on eye tissue during surgery.

Congratulations to Professor Shechtman on a well-deserved honor. Having his name appear alongside Linus Pauling as a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry is Hollywood-like justice.

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The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

How did all of this get here? It's a question that has puzzled philosophers, scientists, theologians, and all mankind since the time we first gazed up into the sky and noticed objects of light and fire that would come and go regularly over time. Today the Nobel Committee awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, and Adam G. Riess for their discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

In the 1920s Edwin Hubble observed that the universe was constantly expanding by looking at the light emitted from distant galaxies and realizing that the velocity of the galaxy was proportional to its distance from Earth and to other objects in the universe. The implication was that all objects in the universe were moving away from each other at a constant speed and that all of the mass of the universe was originally contained at a single dense point that was dispersed by The Big Bang. If the universe is expanding constantly, it is hypothesized that at some point, gravity would cause the universe to collapse back on itself into that small point resulting in a fiery end to the universe.

In the late 1990s, this year's Nobel laureates were studying very distant stars called supernovae and observed that those stars were actually accelerating away from Earth contrary to Hubble's observations. These new discoveries were enabled by higher powered telescopes and more powerful computers that Hubble did not have. The observation has led to the hypothesis that there exists "dark energy" that is causing this acceleration. The nature of this "dark energy" and its other implications is one of the most pressing questions in physics today. It is important to note that this years winners are NOT being awarded for "dark energy". That is apparently the subject of a future prize - to be awarded to the people that figure it out.

What are the implications of an accelerating universe? In contrast to an eventual collapse of the universe due to gravity in the case of Hubble's observations, an accelerating expansion of the universe suggests that bodies will continue to move apart until interactions between them become so weak that the entire universe cools to a very low temperature - a cold death of the universe.

And so this year's Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded for a fundamental discovery of the origins of the universe with implications on how it might all end. Congratulations to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, and Adam G. Riess.

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The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

What if you awarded a Nobel Prize and one of the laureates had died? That is exactly what happened this morning. The Nobel committee announced this morning that Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffmann and Ralph M. Steinman had been awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their pioneering work in understanding how the immune system functions. A few hours later, it was announced that Professor Steinman lost his battle with cancer last Friday. It is the practice of the Nobel Committee not to award prizes posthumously. Perhaps the most well-publicized instance of this practice occurred when Rosalind Franklin died before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins for their elucidation of the double-helical structure of DNA. Her x-ray data of DNA were critical to the determination of the double helix. The committee decided after today's announcement to allow Steinman to retain the honor.

The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize. In light of this, the Board of the Nobel Foundation has held a meeting this afternoon.
According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, work produced by a person since deceased shall not be given an award. However, the statutes specify that if a person has been awarded a prize and has died before receiving it, the prize may be presented.

An interpretation of the purpose of this rule leads to the conclusion that Ralph Steinman shall be awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The purpose of the above-mentioned rule is to make it clear that the Nobel Prize shall not deliberately be awarded posthumously. However, the decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive. This was true – though not at the time of the decision – only a day or so previously. The Nobel Foundation thus believes that what has occurred is more reminiscent of the example in the statutes concerning a person who has been named as a Nobel Laureate and has died before the actual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.

The decision made by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet thus remains unchanged.

Professors Beutler and Hoffmann were awarded their share of half the prize for their work in how innate immunity works. Innate immunity is the body's natural reaction to general challenges from microbes. This initial reaction is non-specific, i.e. the immune system reacts to the foreign invader regardless of whether this particular invader has been recognized previously. For this to work properly, there must be some general characteristics of pathogenic microbes that the immune system must recognize. This turns out to be the case and Beutler and Hoffmann identified receptors on cells that are responsible for recognizing these characteristics. These receptors are known as Toll-like receptors and are found in both vertebrates and invertebrates as well as plants suggesting that they are some of the most ancient components of the immune system. Recognition of a pathogenic invasion via the Toll-like receptors triggers an inflammatory response as the first defense in fighting the infection. It is for their discovery of the role of Toll-like receptors in this response that Beutler and Hoffmann were recognized with the Nobel Prize.

Professor Steinman was honored for his work in the second part of the immune response, adaptive immunity. Anyone who has received a vaccination is familiar with the concept of adaptive immunity. Your system is challenged by a modified pathogen which triggers a response that allows your body to fight off a recurring attack by that same pathogen. In the early 70s, Steinman discovered a new type of cell, the dendritic cell. Steinman proposed that these cells played a role in the activation of the immune response by activating T-cells. He later showed this to be the case and demonstrated that this activation could be triggered by signals from the initial innate immune reaction. It is this process that is key to the "self or enemy" paradigm and under normal conditions protects the immune system from turning on the body.

These studies have laid the ground work for fundamental applications in immunity related to vaccinations against dangerous infections as well as to the promising area of vaccines against cancer. In fact, Professor Steinman was being treated for a very deadly form of pancreatic cancer using some experimental treatments of his own devising. Whether this treatment was effective is probably up for debate but he lived 4 years post-diagnosis with a cancer with a 4% survival rate at 5 years.

Congratulations to Professors Beutler, Hoffmann and Steinman and a special kudos to the Nobel Committee for allowing the continued awarding of the prize to Professor Steinman.

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Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai died this week. I first learned of her from lizannewrites and then bought the book The Challenge for Africa. Professor Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in the late 70s to help women improve their lives by improving their access to firewood and clean water. She became passionate about the environment and sustainability, especially pertaining to preserving native forests in Kenya and the impact of reforestation on climate. Her movement started planting trees near her homeland. Her efforts have resulted in the planting of over 30 million trees and helped almost 1 million women in Kenya. She was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Dr. Maathai was an amazing woman. It's a shame she is not widely known. She will have a state funeral in Kenya - a well-deserved and untimely honor. In her book The Challenge for Africa, she wrote:

My grandparents and others of their generation measured their happiness, their material and spiritual well-being, in ways far different from today. Their medium of exchange was goats. They kept domestic animals, which they used carefully for survival and treated humanely, and cultivated a variety of food crops on their land. Because most of their basic needs were met, they didn't consider themselves poor. They lived within a community of rituals, ceremonies, and expressions of their connection to the land and their culture; they didn't feel alienated or adrift in a meaningless, highly materialistic world that assigns value only in dollars and cents, because their world was animated by the spirit of God. They took what they needed for their own quality of life, but didn't accumulate and destroy in the process - and they did all this so that future generations would survive and thrive. By the time my mother died, in 2000, everything could be sacrificed for money: forests, land, goats, values, and people.

I was hoping that on my visit to Kenya next year that I might have the opportunity and honor to meet her. I can now only hope to carry on her legacy by finding a way to help poor farmers in her home country. Well done, good and faithful servant.

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Entropy Thursday - Global edition

Man, has it been a long time since I've done an Entropy edition, or any post for that matter. Way too long.

I've just spent the last 2.5 days at our company's Global Sustainable Ag Conference. There were 150 of us from every corner of the globe gathered together to talk about our vision for the next steps of our sustainable ag initiatives. Sustainability is not part of my direct job, but you know of my interests in the area, particularly with helping small farmers in Africa. I was not on the radar for the meeting organizer, but I found out about it and invited myself. They gladly included me.

All I can say is that the last 2.5 days were amazing. We do a terrible job of telling about all of the cool things we do to help poor farmers all over the world. I think too often we get stuck in the mindset of the American Midwestern farmer - easy to understand as they're our biggest customers. But, the majority of the world's farmers do not farm 10,000 acres in Iowa. Most of the world's farmers tend less than 2 acres in the developing world. They don't have John Deere tractors or even access to technology we had 40 years ago. And so they spend almost all of their day just trying to eek out enough to feed the family. Many times the kids stay home and help in the field. But our employees in those parts of the world find ways to make a huge difference in the lives of those small farmers. And our colleagues in Brazil are doing amazing things to help safe forests from being converted to farmland. It was so inspiring to hear these people talk about how they kept working to help poor people even in the face of people saying it couldn't be done.

In more general terms, I couldn't help but notice how awesome it was to be surrounded by people not like me. I grew up in a segregated city, surrounded by people that were just like me. Yesterday, I shared a table with a gentleman from Brazil, one from Mexico, and a woman from India. It is so amazing to sit and talk with these people, learn about them, about their lives and homes. It made me feel blessed and a part of something larger. At the end of the day, I was in a working group for Africa and India. I was placed there because of my interest in Africa. In that group, I met a man from Kenya and a woman from South Africa. Of course, I fell in love. We talked a bit, but it was mostly about the task we were given. This morning, our assignment was to finish the task. But we had a little time to talk and the man asked "why Africa?" And so I started telling the story of the teenage boy who in 1984 saw the stories of the Ethiopian famine, the all-star Band Aid tribute "Do They Know It's Christmas" and how I felt that I was lucky to have been born a white guy in middle class America. I explained that I had a duty to help those less fortunate. After that, he said, "you must come to Kenya! We need you to come."

Now, I had discussions earlier in the year with a woman who said she could get me over there whenever I wanted to go. But today seemed different when the colleague from Kenya said, "you must come!" Shortly after that, we ran into this other woman and he told her, "he needs to come" and she asked, "when?" And so, it appears that barring any unforeseen circumstances, I will be going to Africa next spring to visit Kenya, South Africa, and perhaps Malawi. I will be working with our sales people and also with African farmers. I'm sure it will mostly be an educational experience for me, but I hope to identify ways I can make a tangible difference between now and the time I go.

I'm incredibly excited about the opportunity and humbled by the possibilities. I can't imagine what it's going to be like. But I know it will be transformational.

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