The Tao of Biotechnology

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Bird Flu Coverage

Please go here to access my posts on bird flu.

Monday, December 12, 2005


My main emphasis, for the time being, will be at The Tao of Politics. Some problems facing the world, like bird flu, terrorism, and the Iraq War, seem to be more urgent, and seem better suited for coverage at this other site. I view this as regrettable. Biotechnology and genetic engineering are among the most important issues facing the human species, but they often get pushed off the front page by more high profile issues. I plan to continue contributing to this blog. These issues are important to me personally, but I am limited in the amount of time I have, and my time seems best spent at The Tao of Politics.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Genetic Engineering Non-News

There is an article in the news from the Institute of Food Research (UK) about a new “super broccoli” that has been developed to contain more of the nutrients that are supposed to fight cancer. The new product contains 3.4 times as much sulforaphane as broccoli normally does. Is this a triumph for genetic engineering? No. According to the article the broccoli was developed using traditional plant breeding methods. Hooray for Nature, and for the scientists who honored her.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bill Gates the New Ford?

In the futuristic novel Brave New World, Henry Ford was not presented in the most positive light. This was not supposed to be a feel good book, of course, and Ford was seen as the source of much to not feel good about. Remember how everything was dated in terms of AF (After Ford)? Could Bill Gates be a metaphorical Henry Ford for the field of Biotechnology?

Bill Gates is making $450 million available to scientists who want to work on such research projects as making genetically engineered mosquitoes, vaccines, rice, sorghum, and bananas. One other project seeks to cure AIDS using stem cells to change the human immune system. In many ways this all sounds like Brave New World. And just like in the book, I think there is tremendous potential here for things to go wrong. When you start genetically engineering such things as mosquitoes and releasing them into the environment, when you start changing the human immune system, disasters can happen. They have in the past with other things, and they probably will again.

If things go well with Bill Gates’ project to fund groundbreaking research, undoubtedly he will be viewed in the future as a hero. If things don’t go well, maybe someone in the future will write a book dating some of mankind’s ills to the time ABG (After Bill Gates.)

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Genetic Research

I guess if I knew more of what was going on in the world I would be surprised by a lot of it. For example, in the UK alone there were 2.8 million experiments last year on animals, and about 800,000 experiments on genetically modified animals. So the monsters just keep on coming. You know, I’ve said this before I’m sure, but you can’t just continue making monsters, or experimenting with this kind of stuff without having some kind of consequences. The monster always escapes and goes on a killing rampage. That is the lesson or moral of every monster movie ever made. But are we learning from these lessons? I don’t think so, otherwise we would not continue as we are.

I would not be surprised if our scientists might someday accidentally create a virus and wipe out the human race. In fact they’ve already accidentally created a virus with that potential. It’s only a matter of time before something like that escapes, if it hasn’t already.

As I’ve also said before, if they find a cure for cancer, fine; if they kill a billion people, not so fine. They need to really be careful.

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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Swimming Upstream

Aqua Bounty Technologies has developed a genetically engineered salmon that grows four times faster than normal. I, for one, hope it never comes to market. As Moldy Chum says, “What could possibly go wrong” with that? And Henrette at Only Real is Unreal expresses some very real concerns about genetically engineered salmon in general. Sometimes it seems like those who value Nature are swimming upstream against the scientists and corporations that are changing Nature. When is the world going to be concerned about the changes that are taking place? Hopefully before it’s too late.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

GMOs and Choice

Here is an interesting article from Treehugger, “Arguments against GMOs (and Industrial Agriculture.) "

The most important argument against GMOs, for me, is that if GMOs take over the world, I will no longer be able to eat what I choose to eat. That’s an important issue. Now, I can eat organic if I choose. I can also eat non-organic, or even genetically modified. But as GMOs gain more and more prominence in the world, they will likely eliminate organic crops altogether, thereby eliminating one of my choices. That’s not right.

Is this a small price we have to pay for progress? I think it’s less about progress and benefits to consumers than it is about corporate profits.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Health Notes

Skin patch to treat ADHD not proven safe enough

Star anise seeds used in production of Tamiflu to treat bird flu.

US allows imports of poultry from Canada

World AIDS Day

Progress toward AIDS vaccine made

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Harvard Bioethics Center

Harvard Law School has received $10 million to create the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, to deal with the legal aspects of biotechnology. They plan to discuss such topics as the definition of human life and whether people have the right (or duty, if circumstances warrant) to modify the genes of their offspring.

This new center is all well and good, but I think the money would be better spent discussing whether or not corporations have a right to modify and patent our food supply; whether or not scientists have a right to cross plants with animals; whether or not ordinary people have a right to know exactly what is in their food.

There are some important, fundamental issues surrounding biotechnology and bioethics. It looks like the new center at Harvard will address some but not others. So that leaves people like me to continue wondering when these issues will be discussed. It shouldn’t have to wait until some college receives a $10 million gift.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2005


I’m Afraid of GMOs
There may be no evidence that genetically modified (GM) food is bad for consumers, and there may be evidence (according to this article) but we have definite proof that non-GM food is actually good for consumers: non-GM food has nourished the earth’s population for millennia, and I think the only problem is in getting the food to the people who are hungry. Why, then, do our corporations have to change all our food? Wouldn’t their efforts be better spent in distributing the food we have?

Also, since there is “accumulating evidence that GM crops . . . may be detrimental to ecosystems,” doesn’t that make one think that we should proceed with more caution? It certainly does that for me.

So, farmers have found a loophole that allows them to legally grow GM corn in England? Aren’t you supposed to know there is something wrong when the subjects of “legal loopholes” and “patents” come up in a discussion of farmers planting a crop of corn? It used to not be this way. A farmer used to be able to buy some seed, plant his crop, maybe save some seeds until next year, and not have to worry about sneaking around or being taken to court. This, however, it seems to me, is where genetic engineering has brought us. And I don’t think biotechnology is a better way. If it was, these issues would not exist.

Austria, which along with Switzerland and Italy oppose planting GM crops, will hold a conference next year on genetically modified food.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Health Notes

It’s good to know that there are people in the world who are working hard on the bird flu problem. One study, for example, suggests that vaccinating chickens can actually stop the spread of the H5N1 virus. That’s good. Also, bird flu seems to be subsiding in Russia, and the Netherlands is already talking about a timetable for lifting some of its restrictions.

For up to date and breaking news on bird flu, see link at right.

In genetic engineering news, China is still concerned about the safety of genetically modified (GMO) rice, and has decided not to recommend planting the crop until more data is available. Good for them.

And in medical news, we already know that the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) test is flawed. It results in false positives about eighty percent of the time. Now research suggests that even if PSA levels fall within the normal range, there may still be cancer present. The digital rectal exam (DRE) finds some of these cancers and should be included, not excluded, as part of the prostate exam process.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Hooray for the Swiss

Switzerland voted on Sunday for a five-year moratorium on most Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Good for them. Most of Europe was right about the Iraq war. Are they right about Genetically Modified food as well?

Corporations vs. Humans

We all know that corporations have but one imperative: to make money. Therefore, why should we trust any of them to make things for us that are not harmful? Analyzing the effects of a product on humans, harmful or beneficial, is not their top priority. In fact, if I am not mistaken, there are many instances where corporations have hidden or minimized harmful side effects of products. This is just one reason why I am against GMOs in the food supply.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Biotech can do some good things. If they find a cure for cancer, great. If they put stuff in our food that has unforeseen consequences, not so great.

Needed: Modern Poultry Industry

After reading this article about farming conditions in China, one thing seems clear to me: farmers cannot continue as they have. As long as birds are raised in squalor, germs will continue to breed, and viruses will continue to kill. I don’t know what the answer is. I know the farmers depend on the income from birds for their livelihood, but in some ways I think the governments in these Asian countries should take over the raising of birds, provide them with clean conditions, segregate them from the human population, and provide the farmers with a different form of livelihood. I know I am recommending that we take a primitive people and bring them into the modern world; but the world is modern already. It is these farmers who are lagging behind. And it is they, by their primitive practices, who are creating a bird flu that threatens all mankind

There is continued discussion of creating genetically engineered chickens. This solution is fraught with problems, as this article acknowledges; whereas, if Asian governments would just take the initiative and create sanitary farms for the raising of birds, they might be starting from scratch in the creation of a modern poultry industry, but at least they wouldn’t be starting from scratch in the creation of genetically engineered chickens, the result of which no one can predict.

Here is some information for consumers about Tamiflu.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Mediterranean Diet

Now that you're done eating turkey for Thanksgiving, you might want to consider the Mediterranean Diet. In one study it lowered cardiac risk 15% in three months. Another study tested the effects of olive oil, which is part of the Mediterranean Diet, on circulation. And another article discusses olive oil and prostate health.

Bird Flu
Thirty-five birds infected with H5 virus (not H5N1, thankfully) were found in Eastern Canada. This may not be a lethal strain, but Eastern Canada is very close to Eastern United States.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Health Notes

With bird flu seemingly rather common now in Canada, it’s only a matter of time before we have cases reported in the United States. Oh, and you can ban all the imports you want to, but birds don’t need passports. Bird flu needs to be attacked at its source, and that is with the bird breeders and bird markets of Asia. There seems to be more of that happening in recent days. Only time will tell if it’s too little too late.

Here’s a scary little article. It enumerates some potentially serious problems with China’s plan to vaccinate billions of chickens against H5N1. You know China has also spoken of a plan to Genetically Engineer all its chickens to be immune to H5N1. I think there would be a lot of potentially serious problems with that too.

The Center for Disease Control is recommending that quarantine procedures for foreign travelers be updated, including providing US officials with more access to passenger lists. This seems to have the potential for controversy. With more and more threats in the world, we seem to be giving up more of our freedom and privacy. Is that a good thing?

Some blogs I read today
Two blogs I read on a regular basis are Simply Left Behind and Miss Cellania. And as usual check out the informational links at right.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Irony's Not Lost

I admit, the news about Avian (bird) flu is a little unsettling, with 24 outbreaks in China, flu erupting in other parts of East Asia, Europe, Russia, even Canada, and all this at a time when our big holiday is devoted to killing and eating a large bird as a sign of thanksgiving.

We do have a lot to give thanks for. So far the bird flu is just that, restricted to transmission from bird to human only, not human to human. So far we are taking steps to protect ourselves. So far it has not gotten a foothold in America. So far we are safe.

Let us, therefore, give thanks, enjoy the holiday, and enjoy the bird. We can never know what tomorrow may bring, but today at least let’s be with family, and let’s be happy.

Full Coverage
For ongoing, up to date information on bird flu, go to Yahoo Bird Flu.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Careful what you eat

When cattle ate other cattle we ended up with Mad Cow Disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE). When primates eat other primates, the result could be another pandemic like AIDS. Since genetic material is sometimes swapped between different viruses, and since people in Africa who deal with primates (especially for food) are exposed to a variety of simian viruses on a regular basis, there is a distinct possibility that a new, potentially lethal virus could result. What’s the answer to this situation? Stop eating monkey meat, I guess. Will that happen? Maybe at some time in the future. Will it happen before there is a big problem? I certainly hope so.

Food Tip
You might want to wash those fruits and vegetables. Latin American manure used as fertilizer could make you sick.

The World vs. Bird Flu
When I look at the enormity of the situation surrounding bird flu – it is spread by migrating birds, the world is so vast, and the flu has a head start on us – I have the feeling that we are not going to stop a human pandemic if eventual human to human transmission is in the cards. All our efforts might, however, minimize the seriousness of it.

Bird Flu Update
Click here for up to date information and breaking news on bird flu.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Mighty Pea

I guess we can chalk one up for Nature: after ten years of research, scientists in Australia have abandoned efforts to genetically modify a pea, because the GM version caused lung inflammation in mice. Some might say, well the system worked. It eliminated the pea before it got into the food supply. Yes, that’s true. But the pea was eliminated because it caused lung inflammation. What about more subtle side effects, ones not so easily recognized? Some might argue that GMOs in the food we eat are bound to have long term effects on the people eating them, and that it is impossible to know what those long term effects are. This possibility is one reason why I am against genetically modifying our food.

Health Notes
We’ve had a lot of talk recently about avian (bird) flu. Some nations want to genetically modify the world’s chickens (see below) and there is a lot of hoopla over developing a vaccine (which wouldn’t be available, in sufficient quantity, for 3-5 years I think). In this article, a scientist suggests more practical methods for preventing a human pandemic.

The number of AIDS cases has hit 40 million, and seems to be rising rapidly. And Russian drug users account for the growth of the AIDS epidemic in Europe.

The Pope weighs in on genetic testing of fetuses.

Britain’s Tony Blair calls for action to reduce global warming? He would do well to talk to his pals in Washington. On second thought, that probably wouldn’t do any good.

Attack of the Aliens

As if we needed anymore evidence that people don’t always know what they’re doing, here it is. Just when we were so worried about bird flu, now it seems we also have to worry about things like killer bees and snakehead fish. Lots of living things, these two included, have been introduced by man into habitats where they do not normally live. They often wreak havoc with indigenous species, and it is often nearly impossible to get rid of one of these “alien species” once they have gotten a foothold, not to mention the economic and environmental damage that may ensue.

We are doing the same thing sometimes with Genetically Engineered (GE) crops. Many of them certainly meet the criteria to be called an “alien species,” first because they have never existed before (they are somebody’s new invention), and additionally because they have never existed alongside natural crops. Often the GE crops cross-pollinate with the natural crops, resulting in a sort of hybrid, and often they supplant them entirely. Sometimes it is nearly impossible to get rid of the GE species once it has gained a foothold.

While countries around the world are trying to prevent the spread of “alien species” maybe they could do something about Genetically Engineered species as well. Not everyone views them as the boon that some scientists and businessmen do.

No Genetically Modified Chickens

In England they are talking about replacing Nature’s chickens with genetically modified ones. Don’t you think that is a little extreme? (China is also proposing the same thing.) I don’t think the chicken is the problem. Why do we have to change it? I'm not a big fan of genetic engineering anyway, especially when they modify stuff we have to eat, so I am against replacing one whole species of animal on this planet with a genetically modified version. We’ve been eating chickens for millennia. Who’s to say that the scientists can get it better than Nature did? Who’s to say we won’t end up with something worse than we have now? Besides, the scientists have a lousy track record. Just read Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, by Edward Tenner.

I think somebody is trying to make some money here, because whoever modifies the chickens would own the patent on them, worldwide. And I also think there are perfectly adequate measures that we can take to reduce the risk of bird flu now without making Frankenchickens that would take years to develop anyway, without any assurance that they would protect against future unknown strains. Let’s use, really use, the methods we have at hand, instead of possibly creating another huge problem.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Bibliography/Reading List

In my independent study of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering I read the following books, in addition to hundreds of articles:


Batalion, Nathan. 50 Harmful Effects of Genetically Modified Foods. Oneonta, N. Y.: Americans For Safe Food, 2000.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

Cobb, Allan B. Scientifically Engineered Foods: The Debate Over What’s on your Plate. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2000.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, editor. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Cummins, Ronnie and Lilliston, Ben. Genetically Engineered Food: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers. New York: Marlowe and Company, 2000.

Fox, Michael W. Beyond Evolution: The Genetically Altered Future of Plants, Animals, the Earth . . . and Humans. New York: The Lyons Press, 1999.

Fox, Michael W. Superpigs and Wondercorn: The Brave New World of Biotechnology and Where It All May Lead. New York: Lyons and Burford, 1992.

Grosveld, F. and Kollias, G. Transgenic Animals. San Diego: Academic Press Inc., 1992.

Ho, Mae-Wan. Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare? The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business. Bath, UK: Gateway Books, 1998.

Houdebine, Louis Marie, ed. Transgenic Animals: Generation and Use. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997.

Howard, Ted and Rifkin, Jeremy. Who Should Play God? The Artificial Creation of Life and What it Means for the Future of the Human Race. New York: Laurel-Leaf Books, 1980.

Huet, Marie-Hélène. Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Maclean, Norman. Animals With Novel Genes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

McHughen, Alan. Pandora’s Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Nelkin, Dorothy. Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1995.

Nottingham, Stephen. Eat Your Genes: How Genetically Modified Food is Entering Our Diet. New York: Zed Book Ltd., 1998.

Reiss, Michael J. and Straughan, Roger. Improving Nature?: The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Rifkin, Jeremy. The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.

Rifkin, Jeremy and Perlas, Nicanor. Algeny. New York: The Viking Press, 1983.

Rogers, Michael. Biohazard. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.

Rollin, Bernard E. The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Russo, Enzo and Cove, David. Genetic Engineering: Dreams and Nightmares. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company Limited, 1995.

Stableford, Brian. Future Man. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1984.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. A Bantam Classic. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.

Teich, Albert H., editor. Technology and the Future. Seventh Edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Teitel, Martin and Wilson, Kimberly A. Genetically Engineered Food: Changing the Nature of Nature. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 1999.

Tenner, Edward. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Ticciati, Laura and Ticciati, Robin. Genetically Engineered Foods: Are They Safe? You Decide. Los Angeles: Keats Publishing, 1998.

Wekesser, Carol. Genetic Engineering (Opposing Viewpoints Series). San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996.

Biotechnology Forum

During three months in 2001 I participated in the North Carolina Citizens’ Technology Forum on Genetically Modified Foods, under the auspices of the Center for Information Studies at North Carolina State University. We began as a group of sixteen individuals with little or no prior knowledge of the issues surrounding genetic engineering. Our task, as a panel, was to learn as much as possible about the subject, form opinions, and write a report with recommendations which would be distributed to policy-makers. We read voluminous source materials, watched a background videotape and, later in our deliberations, had the opportunity to ask questions from experts in the field of biotechnology. While I am not spokesperson for the Forum, I thought the public might be interested in knowing some of our conclusions and recommendations.

Our group believed that the public has a right to buy and eat food that is not genetically modified (GM) and that contains no genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This is interesting in light of the fact that some two thirds of the processed food in our grocery stores contains GMOs. More and more of the crops in this country are genetically modified. Many farmers don’t grow GM crops, yet find that GMOs turn up in their fields accidentally, perhaps blown by the wind. Organic farmers are finding GMOs turning up in their crops. And Mexico, which carefully guards its maize, recently found, to their consternation, that GMOs had even contaminated that crop. If the public has a right to buy non-GM food, how are we going to ensure that right? Contamination from GMOs is rampant and possibly irreversible. There was a major article in the New York Times June 10, 2001 about this very subject.

In a similar vein, we concluded that some labeling of GMOs should be done. The FDA does not presently require GMOs to be labeled. They have their reasons for not doing so (they don’t consider altered genes to be sufficiently different from unaltered genes to warrant labeling); the agricultural and food industries have their reasons for opposing labeling (I think they fear that consumers would be turned off by a label and perhaps choose products that contained no GMOs, although research has suggested that people really don’t discriminate against GMOs if they are clearly labeled as such); and some people have reasons for wanting GMOs to be labeled. For me it has much to do with caution and choice. No one knows the long-term effects of ingesting novel genes, so I’d rather be cautious for now. Besides, in this great country of ours, why shouldn’t I be able to choose non-GM food to eat if I want to, as I now do with organic food? I cannot make this choice, however, without adequate information. This is the major reason why I think labeling is necessary.

Perhaps most surprising, we thought the United States should adopt the “Precautionary Principle,” similar to the position held by the European Union. My interpretation of this principle suggests that whenever the full consequences or risks involved with genetic engineering are not known, then you refrain from releasing GMOs into the environment and introducing them into the food supply until they are known. This was the thorniest issue with which we dealt. Nine or ten of the remaining thirteen members of our group wanted to recommend it. Three or four were against it. Since this was a “consensus conference,” we couldn’t recommend it unreservedly, but you get the idea. At least two thirds of our members, who were well informed on the subject, wanted to adopt the Precautionary Principle. We even wanted to create an office in the federal government with a chief liaison officer to coordinate and oversee genetic engineering concerns.

All this should show everyone how important we considered the issue of genetic engineering to be. This was just a group of ordinary citizens who got together for a serious purpose and reached some serious conclusions. These were not positions that we arrived at lightly or hastily. What’s to be done now? Our report will undoubtedly be delivered to government agencies and the media. Will it be heeded? It’s a good first step, but in order to be truly effective more people like us need to become informed and to speak out. Noah Pickus, of the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University said, “Policy-makers face the difficult and risky task of promoting the same technology they must regulate.” Without public involvement, the future may see more promoting than regulating.
March 2002

Here is a review of the forum, written by its organizer, Dr. Patrick Hamlett, NCSU.

Of Men and Monsters

A March 2001 newspaper article stated that Arthur Peacocke, latest recipient of the Templeton prize, “believes scientists must be given broad freedom to work toward the eradication of disease and other forms of human suffering.” I’d like to ask, what freedoms do scientists not have?They were free when they created a mouse with a human ear on its back.

They were free when they created frogs with no heads, rabbits that glow, lambs with human genes. In short, they have enough freedom to create any kind of monster they want. (I don’t use that term in a pejorative sense. The word “monster” means “any animal, plant or thing of abnormal form or structure.”) They are free, in many cases, to place transgenic crops into the field, thereby making surrounding crops and organisms vulnerable to gene pollution and horizontal gene transfer, the long-term effects of which no one can say.

Where are the checks and balances to restrain the scientists and make them accountable? The large corporations give them limitless amounts of money and resources. The Biotech industry is represented in the highest levels of government. The FDA won’t even require labeling of genetically modified food. And the public is complacent and uninformed. Where are the impediments?

Certainly genetic engineering has the potential for enormous good, but it also has the potential for enormous, irrevocable harm. Arthur Peacocke had a bully pulpit upon receiving his million dollar prize. I wish he had used that pulpit to advocate more circumspection in the pursuit of scientific advances instead of elaborating positions that can only serve to strengthen the cause of untrammeled technology and big business.(March 2001)